Joy in Togetherness

Christmas feels hard this year.

With everything that’s changed in our world over the course of 2020, many of us are finding that the traditions we’ve always observed around this time of year are now beyond our reach. Most of us can’t gather with people outside our immediate households. Many of us can’t afford to carry out our celebrations with the level of luxury we’ve enjoyed in years past.

Nearly all of us are tired—tired and sad, weary of all the restrictions and decisions and extra thought processes we have to slog through before we can make choices that we could have made in a heartbeat at this time last year. It feels exhausting to celebrate when there’s so much grief and sorrow around and within us. And, some days, it feels like the joy we typically associate with Christmastime is beyond our reach.

Is it?

Christmas with the Cratchits

One of the best-known Christmas stories in English-speaking culture is Charles Dickens’ little novel The Christmas Carol. In this short book, the miserly business owner Scrooge is visited by three Ghosts, each of whom shows him a different vision of Christmas in order to teach him the true meaning of the season.

The second of Scrooge’s visions is the one that has stuck with me, coming to mind again and again over the past few weeks. Accompanied by the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge travels to a small home on the other side of town, where one of his employees sits down with his family to enjoy a Christmas feast.

It’s immediately evident that the Cratchits are very, very poor. They’ve roasted a goose for their Christmas meal—standard Christmas fare, perhaps, for many families in their town, but from the excitement of the smallest Cratchits we can see what a rare treat such a feast is for their family. When Mrs. Cratchit brings out the Christmas pudding, the family gushes over it:

“Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. It would have been flat heresy to do so. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing.”

—Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Stave III

Onlookers would recognize that the pudding wasn’t big enough for such a large family—but it never occurred to any of the Cratchits to even think such a thing. Their Christmas feast may not have produced an abundance of leftovers, as we often expect our holiday meals to do; each of them may have had only a tiny serving of their dessert; but all the Cratchits felt was delight. It was Christmas, and they were together—and that was what mattered.

What Matters Most

This is a blog about what matters and about the words we use to express it, and in Dickens’ description of a poor family’s simple Christmas feast I see, underneath the words, a glimpse of what truly matters about Christmas.

“They were not a handsome family; they were not well dressed; their shoes were far from being water-proof; their clothes were scanty…But, they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time…”

—Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Stave III

The wealthiest man in the city, Ebenezer Scrooge, was ill-tempered and miserable on Christmas Day, while the poorest family was filled with joy.

Joy, even though they didn’t have an abundance of food for their Christmas feast.

Joy, even though one of their children was crippled, ill, and (as the Ghost of Christmas Present tells Scrooge) would not live until the next Christmas.

The Cratchits knew scarcity, and they were aware they would soon know loss—but there they sat, a family of eight drinking cider from the only three cups they owned, content because it was Christmas.

They put me to shame.

In my little house, where we collect coffee mugs like it’s a hobby, where our fridge has never been empty, I have so much more reason, it would seem, to be joyful than the Cratchits.

Yet, for some reason, I think my discontent is justified because life is hard right now—because I don’t have what I had last year or the year before.

The Cratchits celebrated Christmas, not with a crowd of extended family and friends, but with their own little household: mother, father, children. They did not have more food than they needed; in fact, if we cooked a Christmas feast and saw not even a bone left on the platter we would probably think we hadn’t prepared enough. Even the failing health of Tiny Tim could not steal the joy of the season from them.

Yes, the Cratchits were content. Not only content—they were delighted with what was, to them, the most special day of the year. Circumstances had nothing to do with it whatsoever. They were together—and that was enough.

How much is enough?

I’m aware that many people have suffered greatly this year. They’ve lost loved ones, jobs, security. Not for a moment do I want to downplay the very real suffering that so many of you are experiencing.

Today, though, I’m writing to the rest of us—to those of us whose main source of suffering this year is the separation from loved ones, the absence of familiar traditions, the isolation during a time of year year we typically associate so strongly with togetherness.

We’ve all been mourning the gatherings and events that cannot be this year, and we’re right to do so. It’s natural to grieve the loss of our traditions. We’ve grown accustomed to celebrating Christmas a certain way, with certain people, and of course it hurts to have all of that suddenly ripped away. It is good to acknowledge that, healthy to mourn the abrupt changes we’ve all suffered this year.

Acknowledge, yes. Grieve, of course.

But let’s not exaggerate the magnitude of our suffering.

The kind of Christmas most of us are likely to have this year isn’t very different from the Cratchits’: just our little households, meals that are probably simpler than what we would prepare for a larger gathering. Yet where Dickens describes a joyful family celebration, we’ve been mourning as though Christmas can’t be Christmas without all the extravagance we’ve become accustomed to.

Our expectations for our Christmases have grown to such massive proportions that a Christmas like the Cratchits had sounds to us like a tragedy. Eat a simple meal with only my little household? Have only a small treat, not a smorgasbord of pies and cakes and sugar cookies shaped like stars and snowmen and Christmas trees?

Oh, what hardship, what deprivation, to celebrate the birth of one whose first bed was a manger with only enough!

The Cratchits knew something I am only just learning to grasp: that the depth of our joy has nothing at all to do with the quality of our circumstances and everything to do with the focus of our hearts. For someone like me (and, perhaps, like most of you), preparing for a Christmas so different from what we’re accustomed to, this is a challenging yet timely lesson.

Can we rejoice over each loved one around our table at least as much as we mourn each one who is not?

Can we delight in our holiday meal no matter how much or how little it may be, realizing that what makes it festive is our excitement and cheeriness?

Would we, like the Cratchits, blush to mention what we don’t have? Is our default to celebrate what we do have instead?

And when our families gather together after the meal is eaten and the sun is set on Christmas Day, will we be “happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time”?

I look at the Cratchits, so delighted with what seems to be so little but is in reality so very, very much. And then I look at my own Christmas in this bizarre Year of our Lord Two Thousand and Twenty.

This time, I look past the cupboards filled with enough coffee mugs for us to drink hot cocoa from now until New Years’. (I exaggerate only slightly.)

I push past the fridge full of food, past the home with insulated walls and heat from a dial instead of a smoky fire. I look beyond all the things the Cratchits didn’t have and didn’t miss to the one thing they knew matters more than all of that.

This Christmas, my husband and I are together.

No more picnic dates at the border, our only form of quality time during our entire engagement. No more FaceTimes before bed and phone calls in the morning.

Tonight, we’re going to eat chicken soup together. Then we’re going to drink hot cocoa—together. And Christmas morning, regardless of whether or not we can celebrate with anyone else this year, we will be together.

No matter how small our households may be, this is the joy the Cratchits found, a joy that neither their poverty nor our pandemic is quite strong enough to demolish. If we can lay hold of it as well—if we can focus on how lovely it is to be together with the people under our own roof—then I’m quite certain that, in spite of everything, we’ll have a very merry Christmas, indeed.

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