The spirit of this season is often misdirected. It’s so easy to get caught up in the ornaments, the commercialism and the spectacles. And when you’re ill that corrupt holiday energy is out of reach. Moreover, forced fake holiday cheer when you feel awful can be downright repulsive. We feel left behind and left out. But bear with me as I propose a different (but actually old) way of looking at how to embrace this time of year – a way that won’t have you using profanity.
2018 brings the 150th anniversary of the publication of one of my most favorite books, Little Women. Part of my affection is sentimental as I distinctly remember my father reading that novel to me and my sister every night before we fell asleep for months. Like Jo March, I have three sisters too, as well as a brother. My sisters and I would pretend we were the March sisters and do plays just like the girls in the novel. And in 1994, when another contemporary remake came out and we were all in our twenties, we took our Dad on Christmas Day to enjoy the film with him.
And in case you hadn’t heard, PBS will be broadcasting a new dramatization of Little Women this spring to mark the sesquicentennial. The multi-part series is produced by the same outfit that created Wolf Hall so that bodes well. The drama begins on May 18, 2018 so you have time to reread the book as I plan to. Jo March is played by Maya Hawke the daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman in her first major role. The series also stars Angela Lansbury as Aunt March, Michael Gambon as Mr. Laurence and Emily Watson as Marmee, their mother. I can not wait!
As Christmas approaches, the second chapter of the novel comes to mind. The March family had fallen on tough times and so Christmas presents were scarce. They each got a book under the pillow. And “for a moment, she felt as much disappointed as she did long ago, when her little sock fell down because it was crammed with goodies.”
Later on Christmas morning, their mother questions the girls:
Six children are huddled into one bed to keep from freezing, for they have no fire. There is nothing to eat over there, and the oldest boy came to tell me they were suffering hunger and cold. My girls, will you give them your breakfast as a Christmas present?
Alcott described how the girls felt after:
The girls had never been called angel children before, and thought it very agreeable, especially Jo, who had been considered a ‘Sancho’ ever since she was born. That was a very happy breakfast, though they didn’t get any of it. And when they went away, leaving comfort behind, I think there were not in all the city four merrier people than the hungry little girls who gave away their breakfasts and contented themselves with bread and milk on Christmas morning.
I was reminded of this generous spirit last week a friend came and spent most of her day helping me. As she did last year, she volunteered, unbidden, to help me put up my Christmas tree. I replied with gratitude but the night before, I was still too unwell to tackle the job even with her help because it meant moving furniture and crawling around in storage. I’ve been in an awful flare for nearly three weeks – really since Thanksgiving. I was sad that I couldn’t take advantage of her very kind offer.
I casually added that – anyway – I needed get my winter clothes down for the expected snow in DC that upcoming weekend whenever I could muster the energy. I had to prioritize the practical over the magical.
But then my friend offered to come and help me with my closet or with whatever I needed. She arrived the next morning with her special and delicious chai and some yummy homemade healthy energy bites for me to have on hand in the fridge.
And when she left I sat and wept with gratitude. She was an all around amazing Advent angel who embodies the generosity of Christmas. And brought wonder into my life and into the season. Christmas is not the accoutrements – the tree, the cookies, the presents. This time of year is about generosity – of time, of attention and of spirit. That is the true meaning of Christmas, isn’t it?
If you live with illness, one’s life is lacking in so many ways. But that doesn’t mean we need to be mired down in bitterness like Ebenezer Scrooge. We may feel we live in, as Alcott puts it, “the departed days of plenty.” Rather, in many ways our illness helps us to cut through the commercialism and kichtz that is so prevalent in our time to the essence of love and connection. We separate the chaff from the wheat because we have to all year long. And that skill honed over the entire year makes this season shine even more luminously with the radiance of true and deep meaning.
Most of the second chapter renders the play the girls perform for their mother.
The rest of the day was devoted to preparations for the evening festivities. Being still too young to go often to the theater, and not rich enough to afford any great outlay for private performances, the girls put their wits to work, and necessity being the mother of invention, made whatever they needed.
Performing and enjoying the play left them “speechless with laughter.” And then
When they saw the table, they looked at one another in rapturous amazement. It was like Marmee to get up a little treat for them, but anything so fine as this was unheard of since the departed days of plenty. There was ice cream, actually two dishes of it, pink and white, and cake and fruit and distracting french bonbons and, in the middle of the table, four great bouquets of hot house flowers.
It quite took their breath away, and they stared first at the table and then at their mother, who looked as if she enjoyed it immensely.
“Is it fairies?” asked Amy.
“Santa Claus,” said Beth.
“Mother did it.” And Meg smiled her sweetest, in spite of her gray beard and white eyebrows.
“Aunt March had a good fit and sent the supper,” cried Jo, with a sudden inspiration.
“All wrong. Old Mr. Laurence sent it,” replied Mrs. March.
“The Laurence boy’s grandfather! What in the world put such a thing into his head? We don’t know him!” exclaimed Meg.
“Hannah told one of his servants about your breakfast party.”
Beth had it right in spirit. Mr. Laurence may have provided the meal, but the spirit was of Santa Claus.
I’m going to try and embody that spirit. I’ll invent whatever I need to as well – just like the March sisters did. Fifty year olds can play pretend as easily five year olds do. Well, maybe not as easily but we can practice and relearn. And play. Make play a priority. Gather people who have the ability to make each other speechless with laughter. That easy going feeling and lightness will celebrate the season.
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Though they didn't get any of it...there were not in all the city four merrier people.