By Donella Meadows
–December 26, 1991–
A neighbor of mine was in the post office the other day complaining about the holidays. Commercialism, crowded stores, too much to eat, too much to drink, too much to do. As he walked out, he tried to sound like Scrooge, but he muffed his line. “Ho, humbug!” he said.
My sentiments exactly. At this time of year I feel a strange mixture of “Ho, ho, ho!” and “Bah, humbug!” The humbug comes from the frenzied false merriment for sale all around me. This year it was worse than ever; I was supposed to buy people things they don’t need with money I don’t have in order to save the whole economy.
A long time ago I quit buying things under obligation. I started giving presents and sending cards at any time of year but Christmas. With immense relief I stayed far away from holiday shopping malls. I thought my friends and relatives would disown me, but they didn’t. Maybe they were relieved that in freeing myself of Christmas hassle, I freed them of the obligation to send unnecessary things to me.
It was with a cranky spirit of “Bah, humbug!” that I separated myself from the culture that equates “Christmas” with “sales.” But in doing so I discovered, to my surprise, an authentic holiday “Ho!” within me. I found, for example, that lights and candles are important pleasures in this dark season, as are evergreens with their pungent smell and their promise that, even through winter, life always persists.
I found that my holidays are healthier and happier if I don’t bake 20 batches of cookies. But I still like to fill the house with welcoming smells and to give the gift of healthy food. So leading up to the holiday I make hearty soups from the veggies in my freezer and root cellar. For the feast day I bake spiced Christmas bread and a turkey from a local farmer (swapped this year for a lamb from my farm).
Music, it turns out, is the most essential part of the season for me. Not the “Here Comes Santa Claus” stuff that’s piped into the stores, but the ethereal music, the Messiah, the carols, the “O Magnum Mysterium.” I look forward to Christmas as a time to play and sing the most beautiful music I know, and to reflect on the glorious message of that music — peace, forgiveness, and love, especially love for babies for whom there is no room at the Inn.
Music, lights, tree, some special cooking, some checks to the agencies that help out people who most need help. That has been my formula for a simple, relaxed holiday. But just last week I realized that I haven’t gone far enough away from the humbug and toward the core of Christmas. That realization came in the middle of another conversation with friends who were complaining about the holidays. They were all female, and they were talking about exhaustion, dread, and loneliness.
Their exhaustion is the kind that falls upon mothers who feel the need to recreate for their families the fancy meals, gorgeous decorations, and munificent presents they remember (or dreamed of) in their own childhoods. The dread comes from not getting everything done in time, or with having it spoiled by long-standing family tensions, or with confronting the bills at the end of the month.
The loneliness came as a surprise, since each of these women was planning to be inundated with friends and relatives. But they admitted feeling like strangers, standing out in a wintry night, looking through a bright window at what they assumed was the perfect happiness of other families. Each woman thought that she was the only one hiding her frazzlement under a thin layer of cheer, the only one living in economic danger, the only one with family dynamics that filled her with dread.
As I listened to them, I felt a wave of sadness for all of us in this tinsel society of fractured families, institutional greed, and generosity that is mainly gesture — sadness for all who have come to see Christmas as an enormous broken promise. I couldn’t see any way to help my friends, except to assure them that they could try the experiment that I am trying, to find the holiday that is within themselves, rather than the one everyone is trying to sell them.
And then I suddenly saw more clearly the holiday that is within myself. I saw that the lights, the evergreens, the food, the music are just symbols for the Christmas I long for — the true one, the one that has to do with deep quiet, turning inward, spiritual rebirth. I saw that I need a place for meditation and retreat and a way to help the children who are not welcome in the Inn. I need them all year, but especially between December 15 and January 1.
I have no idea what to do with this realization, but I know that others have gone this way before me. They can show me how to say a final “Bah, humbug” to flurry and overindulgence, and a welcoming “Ho” to a time of dark nights, shining lights, and a mysterious, redeeming birth.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991