My Christmas tree, fully decorated, still stands in a corner of my living room, Santas and angels preside over a motley assortment of other figurines and bells jingle when I open and close my front door. And every night, I still sit in the glow of twinkling lights and flickering balsam fir-scented flames.
Yes, the holidays have come and gone, but I’m not ready to part with them quite yet, despite what the calendar dictates and my own ambivalence of facing them for the first time without our beloved Lou, my mom’s partner of 18 years. I don’t miss the frenzy, the constant doing, the travel and flurry of social obligations that make December feel like a mad dash to a finish line of elusive rewards. We make such a fuss, in such a dizzying haste, that it seems we barely have time to enjoy our efforts before lawn ornaments lie deflated in front yards, Christmas trees line the curbs and boxes are carted back to basements and attics, taking with them their bright cheer.
I don’t plan to keep my decorations up all winter, but as we head deeper into its cold and dreary months, they make my house feel a little warmer when I walk through the door, lift my spirits and remind me of recent joys past and pleasures that can still be savored, even in the silenced bustle.
Yet what I actually miss most about the departed season is the spirit that comes with it, one that while uniquely attributed to that time of year, would make for easier, more peaceful living at any time. January and the new year do bring with them their own energies, of fresh starts and renewed commitment and an openness to possibilities unimagined and untried. But December, for me, is even more magical for the joy, kindness and wonder that are attendant to so much festivity.
The friendly greetings from strangers, the alacrity with which many lend a helping hand, the knowing laughter and stories swapped with people we may have barely noticed before as we run our errands and do our shopping, the unexpected thoughtfulness of a neighbor — the opportunities to connect are ceaseless and readily seized.
We give more, of time, money, goodwill, tapping into a magnanimousness that we have maybe guarded or failed to tend in the pedestrian pace of our lives.
And then January comes, the New Year’s revelry subsides, and that pace again takes precedence. Some of us return to being harried, grumpy, restrained, what was so precious and enlivening only a few short weeks ago relinquished to another time and place.
It makes me sad to walk this terrain, rooted of the benevolence stitched into countless small moments over the holidays. It makes me sadder still to think that this is how some of us live, parceling out joy and kindness for ourselves and those around us, as if they are reserves easily depleted, as if they really do belong only to a season, a time where it is somehow more permissible to open our hearts to love and offer its grace in our palms.
At the New Year’s Eve party I attended with my boyfriend Zane, we met a man who happened to live in my neighborhood. When he mentioned in passing to someone else that he had taken the train into Philadelphia from Roxborough, I mentally made a note to offer him a ride home when we were leaving.
As the night wound down, he made several references to the late hour his train would depart, wanting, it seemed, to ask us for a ride but worried that he would impose. When Zane and I told him we’d be happy to take him home, he protested, quite earnestly, and then capitulated while repeatedly seeking assurance that he was not inconveniencing us. He then insisted that he take us out for dinner to thank us for giving him a ride.
Ours was such a small, considerate gesture that the effusiveness of his gratitude stunned me. I told him dinner was unnecessary. He lived, after all, only five minutes away from my house in the very direction we were heading. But when we dropped him off, he reiterated his offer, and I promised we would be in touch. And we will, not because we expect a thank-you but because he seems like a nice guy and we enjoyed getting to know someone who is practically a neighbor.
As we drove away, I commented that his lavish appreciation for something that never once felt like a favor was a bit strange. Zane replied that he found it sad. It moved him to think this man may have felt himself so unworthy of kindness that a simple act would have fueled such an extravagant response. He thought of all the ways and all the times we close ourselves off to the kindness of others, uncomfortable even in our gracious acceptance should it flutter its warmth through our days. Some of us, like our new neighbor, I imagine, live such quietly parched lives despite plying an easy generosity of our own.
That night, and that conversation with Zane, has stayed with me, especially as I’ve noted the post-holiday letdown, the very air seemingly leached of the goodwill and joy only recently so pervasive. I haven’t made any resolutions this year, nor have I adopted the word or words I’d want to serve as a beacon, shaping the months ahead.
But I have been thinking a lot about kindness, and the well-being it inspires to both give and receive it. To regularly practice such compassion, with ourselves and others, seems to me an easy way to remember our shared humanity, to acknowledge that even though we may strive imperfectly, we are often all longing for the same thing: a genuine connection, a moment that says we are seen, heard and accepted — foibles, failings and all.
Christmas may be a time that more readily reveals our essential goodness, our inherent capacity for joy. But if we’re celebrating such intangibles, then they certainly evoke a spirit that can be carried all year long, undiminished by the passing of ordinary days.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times