Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but I do not like Christmas. It’s not that I don’t try to like it, and it’s not that I have never liked it, but inevitably, sometime on Thanksgiving Day, the reality of the looming Christmas season hits me, and I become melancholy even before the dishes are cleared from the Thanksgiving table. The very idea of the holiday season fills me with a vague sense of dread that lingers until the New Year arrives. Honestly, I’m a real Scrooge.
Luckily for me, though, not every moment between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a downer. The season is long, and, ironically, the same hustle and bustle and endless noise that makes the season so stressful is also what produces occasional moments of real joy. For me, these moments are sporadic and unpredictable, but they do occur, every year, small but meaningful gifts, taps on the soul from some universal spirit.
One of these moments came for me this year during the year-end business meeting of the Montevallo Branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), a meeting that also doubled as a holiday party. The event was friendly and festive, with two kinds of entertainment: music, provided by a small group of students in the Montevallo High School Choir, and dramatic readings of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” by Clement Clarke Moore, and selections from “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” by Dr. Seuss. The Grinch selections were to be read by a University of Montevallo student who had been a previous award winner of an AAUW scholarship, and “Twas the Night Before Christmas” was to be read by high school students who were participants in the Upward Bound program, a program designed primarily to identify, mentor, tutor, and encourage promising college-bound students who are either the first generation in their families to attend college or otherwise economically disadvantaged. The Montevallo AAUW branch has a history of inviting Upward Bound students to their programs and events whenever they can, so some of these students were familiar to me.
The music was scheduled before the readings, and as the choir sang their Christmas songs, eventually inviting the rest of us to join in, I found myself warming to the spirit of the evening. I was grateful not only for the familiarity of the music, but also for the fact that the high school students had been invited to sing in the first place–it became clear as the students sang that there were a lot of proud parents, siblings, and friends in the audience for whom this performance was a personal treat, and I doubt that high school students have as many opportunities as their university counterparts do to perform. So good for us, and good for them.
Next on the program was the reading of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” and as the choir members were finding their seats and the Upward Bound students were gathering at the front of the room, near the podium and the microphone, I noticed that their director was just then handing each of them a small slip of paper. Clearly, the slips of paper contained the lines that each student was to read, because students formed into a line as they were handed their slips. The students themselves didn’t seem to be in any particular order before they were handed their lines, so I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the first time that some of these students had seen the poem they were about to perform.
My mind was buzzing. Some of these kids were clearly nervous. I am almost forty years older than most of them, and the language in this poem was already obscure and pretty far removed from anything remotely familiar to my life when I was their age–if they hadn’t practiced this beforehand, how many of the words and images were going to surprise them at the podium? Who these days has ever heard of wearing a “kerchief” or a “cap” to bed?! Who knows what a “peddler” is, and who these days would ever use the word “droll” or “jolly” in any context at any time, ever? I was suddenly very much aware of a huge generational gap between those students, me, and most of the other AAUW members who were in attendance. It crossed my mind that maybe it was time for this poem to be retired, never to be read aloud again except by those of us who remember it nostalgically from our childhoods.
The performance, of course, was a treat. The eleven or twelve students, each with four or five lines assigned to them, were charming and entertaining as they stepped up to the microphone to read, some standing tall, some slumping, some rocking on one foot and then another, some stumbling over words, some in a hurry, some relaxed, some embellishing their small parts with confident and dramatic flair, but almost all quietly grinning with relief or pride as they slipped away from the podium to make room for the next speaker. And none of that should have been surprising to me–kids, no matter what age, are naturally charming performers. But here is where my surprising moment happened. Not long after the first student stepped to the microphone, I realized that tears were welling in my eyes, and I didn’t know why.
The emotions didn’t last long, but they came out of nowhere, and they were strong. By the time we had all applauded the Upward Bound students and the college student neared the end of her much more practiced performance, recounting the familiar line about how the Grinch’s heart “grew three sizes” that day, I had figured out some, but not all, of what had moved me. Obviously, this was partially a Grinch experience for me–like the Grinch, my heart had grown somehow, and it was the Christmas season, but there was more to it than that. It took me a while longer to realize that for me, this was ultimately a lesson about one kind of strength, a kind of shared strength that comes from community, from ritualized behavior, and from communion with one another.
I have to acknowledge that my emotional response was at least partly due to my own personal identification with the Upward Bound students. I, too, was a first-generation college student, and though I have long since forgotten what it was like to be in their situation, I do have some lingering understanding for what it is like to be looking forward into an unknown future rather than back, as I do now, at a known past. And, I do have my own dim recollection of a particular moments similar to this one, of having to force my tentative young self to speak into a microphone, in public. For some of those students, this event, simple as it was, might have taken real personal courage.
But my reaction was clearly based on more than a purely personal empathy with students who might somehow remind me of myself at their age–there was more going on for me that night, and at the very least my emotion had something to do with the power of ritual, formal or not. A few weeks before this holiday party, I had attended a lecture by a Rachel Held Evans, a well-known and popular writer who blogs and speaks prolifically about issues surrounding the Christian church and the church’s relevance or irrelevance to modern society. One of the points of her talk was that despite all of the elaborate strategies to lure people into (or back into) the Christian church, it is simple ritual, particularly the mystery that is inherent in ritual, that has always been and always will be what draws people to the church. Nothing else really matters–not the music, not the venue, not the personalities–if the mystery is not there. She illustrated her point with a story of how she was invited to speak at a huge Christian Youth Rally of middle-school-aged kids (not usually her target audience) and found herself obligated, despite her personal reluctance and discomfort, to help serve communion to the five or six hundred teenagers who were in attendance. Rachel’s role in the communion was to hand a piece of bread, symbolizing the body of Christ, to each student as they filed by, which the students would then dip in a chalice of grape juice, symbolizing the blood of Christ. She felt a little foolish, she said, as the first students started filing by: “And here was a girl who was eager to be first in line….the Body of Christ, broken for you… and here was a boy who was fidgeting with the hair that kept covering his eyes… the Body of Christ, broken for you…. and here was another boy who kept his eyes glued to the floor, head bowed, to keep from making eye contact… the body of Christ, broken for you… and here is a girl whose face lights up from her smile…. the body of Christ, broken for you…and here is a boy whose clothes are obviously really expensive… the body of Christ, broken for you…”
And after several hundred students had filed by, each one the same but each one different, each one taking the same bread and hearing the same words, Rachel told us,she finally “got” what communion was all about in a way that she had never understood in her several decades of regular church attendance. Some of these kids were believers, some were clearly not, some were there because they wanted to be, many were not, some took the communion seriously, some giggled through it, but simply by lining up and participating in the ritual–hearing the words, taking the bread, dipping it in the juice, swallowing it, and then watching hundreds of their peers do exactly the same thing as other Christians had been doing for thousands of years–the students and their servers became part of something that was timeless and bigger than themselves, whether they realized it at the time or not. Rituals have power.
AAUW is not a religious organization, and though this holiday party included Christmas music and stories, it was clearly and intentionally a secular event. But as those Upward Bound students went one by one to the microphone to read the lines from a silly and dated poem that many of them had probably never actually read before and would probably never read again, I couldn’t help but think of Rachel Held Evans’ story of the middle school kids, stopping one by one in front of her, hundreds of them, each bringing with them an individualized history. If there is any truth to the old saying that “just showing up is half the battle,” then surely one aspect of that truth is that by “showing up,” we move from being alone to being in a group, to communing with fellow humans. When I showed up at the holiday party, I did so largely because it was time, once again, to go to the annual AAUW holiday party. It was on my calendar. The Christmas season is a busy time, and this was just another one of the busy things. What I realize now, though, is that for me, at least, simply showing up to an annual party allowed me to recognize my place in a larger ritual, one that gives me (and, I suspect, some others who were there) a strength that I cannot get by myself. What these students might not realize is that simply by showing up to read (something that might have been uncomfortable for them), simply by accepting an invitation to another in a long line of annual holiday parties, they were accepting a moment of support from the people in the audience who invited them. The students performed, the audience listened with good will, and for most of the students and the audience, a similar scene will repeat itself many times in the future, just as it has repeated itself in the past. Performers become listeners; those getting support become givers of support.
Obviously, not everyone who attended the holiday party was as moved as I was, and the specific act that moved me was, after all, a simple performance of an insignificant poem, just one part of the evening’s entertainment. But for me, the event became something of a ritual. Those of us in attendance represented many generations–I was somewhere in the middle of the range; we were participating in something that happens year after year, in a season that is marked by “giving”; some of us needed encouragement and support, some of us gave encouragement and support, and some of us did or had done both. Simply showing up to the event in such a busy season was a kind of gift that we gave to one another. That this particular event became, for me, much bigger than what it actually was, a sort of symbolic reminder of every person in my life who had ever helped me, and with every person I had ever helped, was an unexpected surprise, but it probably shouldn’t have been. There is strength in community, in communion, in ritual. Christmas comes, no matter what.
David claims he grew up bouncing around the country for no good reason in (mostly rural) areas of Texas, Iowa, New Mexico, Montana, and Washington. He is married to Anna. They live in Montevallo, Alabama, with their soon-to-be-teenager son, John David, two dogs, one cat, and a continually changing collection of fish. David is a full-time house-husband, caretaker of Anna, and father who is still trying to decide what he wants to be when he grows up. David takes interest in all kinds of things that delight or surprise, including musing about religion, being entertained by pets, raising kids, making and listening to music, watching movies and plays, making and keeping friends, and reading anything that has ever been printed.