The holiday season can be for many people... let's just say: fraught. Maybe your life hasn't gone the way you imagined. Maybe you'd planned to spend Christmas Eve with a spouse, fireside, toasting to the future over your grandmother's secret egg nog recipe. Maybe you had dreams of children gathered around a beautifully set Thanksgiving table, drooling over the cooked beast, begging to hold hands and make sweeping statements of gratitude for another year of your endless bevy of sage advice. Maybe you fell hook-line-and-sinker for the Holiday card photo that would be yours until death did you part -- only this year, there's only one parent in it, and you can't find your camera anyway, and your kids refuse to pose. Maybe you strung up your heart on the one small square box that would await you under the tree, filled with a tiny trinket with your name on it from someone called, Forever Yours. Maybe your adult children and your grandchildren chose to go to the in-laws for Christmas and you've heard SHE makes better gravy than YOU, never mind her croquembouche! My God... maybe you're alone on Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Years. Maybe your traditions never got a chance to birth. Maybe the last time you felt that holiday cheer was when you were little and you're far from little these days. Maybe you want to beam yourself back to a time in your life that was more fair, simple, abundant, safe. Or at least call someone who could remember that time with you fondly. Only maybe, all those people are gone now.
Don't worry. I'll stop. It's not my goal to depress you. But I'd like to think it's my job to provide you some comfort and joy. So here goes:
Whoever you are, wherever you are, the holidays are bound to leave your heart in shreds at least a little. And before we get too far into the season, I'd like to help your heart hearth make its way to 2014 whole. Fortified. Happy to be beating whatever shape it's in.
There are all sorts of ways to make the holidays sacred without focusing on what's missing. You can get a turkey from the grocery store (a lot of them give free birds this time of year), make soup out of it, and bring it to the local shelter. You can invite friends you know are alone to sing carols at the local nursing home and gather for a meal afterward. If your kids are elsewhere for a holiday, you can celebrate it with them on another day of your choosing and make it just as special. You can make a Gratitude Tree out of branches, put it in a vase in the middle of the kitchen, and write notes of thanks on pieces of paper and hang them like ornaments -- one per day until you ring in 2014. You can read to kids at your local library some of those books your mother read to you and you read to your kids, or wanted to read to the kids you never had: Truman Capote's "A Thanksgiving Visitor," "A Christmas Memory," Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Whales." You can gather up every holiday song you ever loved and blast them from the rafters of wherever you currently call home and sing your heart out.
A toast does not require a glass with which to clink. It really doesn't. You may tell yourself that it does. And where will that get you? On the Polar Express to the Holiday Blues. Let's step away from that train wreck and into the sacred. Because no matter how you shake it, the truth is: There is no shortage of sacred this time of year. It's everywhere. You just have to receive it as the gift it is. And there's no re-gifting the sacred. It comes to you, often when you least expect it, and it fastens you to reality like nothing else can, because it's all yours. No one can feel it for you. Or take it away. You can stand in a holiday-bedecked Lincoln Center, dripping in holly and cedar bows in the height of Handel's Hallelujah chorus, standing next to everybody who's ever been in your Christmas Card from the year you were born... and feel nothing. You can hold hands around a cooked beast, candle-light dancing on the faces of generations of loved ones and generations of china, crystal, and silver... and feel empty. You can stop in a snowy field in the middle of the night and watch steam funnel from the noses of draft horses, sweating from the sleigh ride they just took you on where you sang Jingle Bells, and drank hot-buttered-rum and someone quoted Robert Frost... and feel heartless.
So it's time to stop bowing at those altars, especially this time of year. If it happens... good for you. As long as it's something not nothing... full not empty... heartful not heartless. Otherwise, let's change the way our holiday minds think. Let's look truthfully at what is comfort and what is joy. And let's create that safe haven around us. It begins with us. Not who stands or sits next to us and in what hallowed hall. Not who toasts with us. Sings with us. Eats with us. Gives us gifts. Receives ours. We can take those Action verbs and send them up the chimney. And we can replace them with a Being verb. It's possible to actually BE comfort and joy. Not wait for it. Of course it's powerful (and yes, comforting and joyful) to take that Being and share it with loved ones in celebratory holiday moments. But again, it has to start with us. Whether or not you have a faith base, the truth is plain: Our heads don't bow on their own. We bow them. And whatever we're bowing them to, especially at holiday time, let's let those altars be ones that truly fill the heart hearth with comfort and joy. Not expectation for the future or grief over the past. This simple bowing to this simple altar is better than any tradition ever has been or will be. Because it's free. It's un-fraught. It's as simple as lighting a candle. Not as a window-sill vigil for family lost or never gained. But as an act of pure delight in the exact moment of your heart and breath. This exact moment. Right now. Take a flame to that wick. Sit quietly and watch. Smell the wax warm and watch it pool and dare yourself to stay long enough to see it flood and drip. Don't clean it up. Maybe put your finger into its stream and wonder at the fact that you can take the heat. That it's still friendly flame. Just you and a lit candle. All of a holiday winter night.
Laura Munson is a New York Times and international best-selling author and founder of Haven Retreats.