Surviving the Holidays, maybe even Thriving the Holidays?!

As a counselor, I often hear the phrase “I don’t know if this was a good choice or a bad choice” and it reminds me of a time when I was sitting in on a session with a fellow Substance Use Disorder Counselor when she mentioned that her client appeared to be stuck in black and white thinking. “What’s in between black and white?” she asked. (“All the shades of gray,” I thought to myself as her client looked at her waiting for an answer.) “Every color of the rainbow” she stated.

Every color of the rainbow. There could have been a mic drop. I’d fallen for her tactic hook line and sinker. I realized that I’d gotten so used to living in the gray that I’d begun to forget that the world was a colorful and brilliant place. Is there gray? Sure — lots of different shades. Just as there are shades of purples and greens, blues and yellows. Not only are our choices not “good” or “bad” but they are decisions we make based on hundreds of different factors.

Lantern of light on a cold Christmas Night

In my family, we have a Christmas tradition of going to the cemetery on Christmas Eve. My mom is from Finland and she kept this Finnish tradition alive each year. We take our lanterns and candles to the graves of each of our loved ones and sing a Christmas carol as a way of remembering and including them in our Christmas celebrations. It is helpful to think of Finland, a land so far north that the sun does not shine much during this time of year, with cemeteries glowing with candlelight — literal cities of light. Reminders that even in the darkest of times we can have hope of recovering that which was lost through faith and love.

In the Judeo-Christian belief Christ was born and later died, in part, so that we can all be reunited with our loved ones even after we have died. I love that this tradition illustrates this belief with such sweetness. We bring the raw materials to the cemetery. We light them as our small acts of good works. We place them on the gravestones of our loved ones in faith. We sing a Christmas song, and leave those lights burning through the night with the hope that miracles have not ceased and we are not left alone on this earth, nor in this universe. It has been four years since my mom passed away. Fittingly, we buried her on Christmas Eve, just in time to light candle and remember her as we had my brother who died of a heroin overdose in 1989, and my premature sister who only lived four months and would be in her mid 50’s now. Last year, around Thanksgiving, my younger sister passed away after a courageous battle with cancer. Sometimes that trek through the cemetery is a long and sorrowful one.

I’m so grateful to know that even when things are hard and choices feel polarized (good/bad, painful/pain-free, joyful/sorrowful) that the world is not black and white — it isn’t even gray. You see, my mom was the Christmas Queen. I’m not sure anyone of us gave her enough credit for it, but she kept all the traditions going. She made it easy to participate. She made sure the kids experienced the magic of the season. After she died, I tried really hard to recreate these exact experiences for my children. I failed. We went to the cemetery, I cooked the traditional dishes (even though they aren’t as good as my mom’s) etc. but I don’t have the same resources that my mom had (like my dad who knows all the songs by heart and can play them on the piano, for example.

So, last year I sat on one couch and watched my daughter and her cousin put on a two-women Nativity show (thinking my mom was rolling over in her grave) and stared down my ex-husband as he belted out songs TO THE WRONG TUNES. You see, I wanted the tradition. As one of my friend’s put it recently, I wanted “O Holy Night” sung by Josh Groban and I got “O Holy Night” by Trombone Shorty. Now, Trombone Shorty plays a killer rendition of “O Holy Night” but I couldn’t enjoy it because I was trying so hard to recreate what my mom could do. I was not grateful for what I had, namely: family, friends, children, traditions, love, LAUGHTER, and togetherness because I was suffering from a version of nostalgia and anxiety that manifested as perfectionism lost. The key to thriving in this situation was a healthy dose of ACCEPTANCE. We didn’t have the nativity of my childhood, but we had a one-woman show that grew to a two woman show and the actresses were in it to WIN IT! So, nearly a year late, I want to publicly thank them for their efforts. Good job ladies. Great job, in fact.

I guess I had to re-learn some important lessons. Christmas is about love, and peace and laughter. When we don’t have what we think we want, we can often really enjoy what we do have if we can accept it and maybe even embrace it. Lastly, our options are usually much broader than our quick, initial assessment allows us to believe they are. Remember, the world is not black and white, but let us remember that between black and white we can find every color of the rainbow. I pray this season we have eyes to seek until we find.

Traditional Finnish ornaments with a twist

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