It may seem a little early for New Year’s resolutions, but this one came to me on Christmas Eve.
I was sitting with my wife in church with about a dozen other masked and socially distanced parishioners or guests. Most of the Christmas Eve worshippers had come to the earlier Mass, so we were about as plentiful as the number of shepherds who came to see the Christ child in that Bethlehem stable.
The small numbers in the congregation, though, contributed to an overwhelming feeling of peacefulness. The church was darkened except for candles and Christmas tree lights at the front of the sanctuary and a lone light so the organist and an accompanying flutist could read their music. Other than a baby’s occasional stirring, it was hard to tell before the service began if anyone was sitting behind us.
The priest asked us to think hard about the joy we felt at that moment, as we contemplated the Nativity scene and the culmination of the Christmas season. He said to try to keep that joy going when Christmas was past.
He didn’t ask us to make it our New Year’s resolution, but it would be a good one — and like all New Year’s resolutions that are worth making, a tough one to keep.
Joy certainly seems intermittent, even among people who are more often happy than not. Just when you think you’ve hit a peak of happiness, something comes crashing in to bring you back down to the valley.
Betty Gail and I along with our son, Sam, were having a delightful Christmas morning. We had had a late dinner the night before, and no one wanted to rush through opening presents. Because our dog has a tendency to eat boxes if he is left untended (he devoured one gift this Christmas season, and started to nibble on another during a trial run), we hadn’t been able to put them all under the tree until that morning. The wrapping paper and the ribbons made such a pretty tableau, we took our time deconstructing it. How unlike this was to when our children were younger. They could hardly get done opening one present before they would start on the next.
Pandora, via a bluetooth connection, was playing Christmas carols through the speakers of a CD player. I was enjoying a cup of coffee, to which I had added a dollop of whipping cream rather than my usual splash of half-and-half.
I glanced at the ornaments on the Christmas tree, giving them my full attention for what seemed like the first time since they had been put on there one hurried Saturday. I was struck by how many had been made by an artistic sister-in-law, including the angel at the top of the tree. Others reminded me of my life together with Betty Gail, of our two children and of her late mother, who gifted all of us with ornament collections — Norman Rockwell scenes for Betty Gail and me, silver snowflakes and Barbies for our daughter, Elizabeth, and rocking horses and professional athletes for Sam.
“Peace on earth, good will to men” filled our house.
Then my phone beeped, and a news bulletin from The Associated Press flashed across its screen. A car bombing in downtown Nashville.
I waited an hour to read the story and waited even longer to tell Betty Gail about it. Nashville is where our daughter lives with her husband and their three sons. The explosion occurred about a block from his office. They were spending Christmas in Florida, though, so they were far from its impact.
That intrusion of bad news on a good morning serves as an illustration of what can rob us of joy. But more times than not, the joy killers are less dramatic than that. Stresses at work and worries about family can do the trick. So, too, can illness, and it does not have to be our own.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a collective pall over the world. Keeping apart, wearing masks, the suspension of many social interactions have combined to create a joyless experience. For those who have had bad complications from the virus, or who have lost family members to it, it’s been scary and terribly sad.
An elongated Christmas season, criticized as too commercial and too materialistic in the past, became a coping mechanism this year. Some radio stations began playing Christmas music in July in an effort to lift people’s spirits. The Hallmark Channel went into overdrive with its lineup of Christmas movies that always end happily. Homes that normally decorate for the holidays added even more lights and more inflatables.
These external manifestations of Christmas, though, will only work so long. People will tire even of Christmas music if it doesn’t take a break pretty soon.
What will last? Patience, kindness, generosity, empathy, gratitude. All those traits that Christmas brings out in us will keep us joyful if we can stick with them not only when it’s easy but more importantly when it’s not.
Is that possible? Probably not all the time, but we can try to live that way more often in the coming year than in the one about to end.
• Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.