I’ve long felt that the Christmas season begins too early and ends too soon. This is not a religious complaint. It’s a commercial complaint. In the consumer culture of the United States, Christmas decorations appear in drug stores and grocery markets before Halloween. By mid-October, I feel inundated with red and green paper, images of Santa Claus and metal bells ringing. By late November, evergreen trees can be found for sale in parking lots, and retailers are announcing sales. Whether one is walking down the street, watching television or caroling door-to-door with other people, the sounds of Christmas can be heard for nearly two months.
And then – on December 27th, it’s all over. The day after Christmas yields even bigger sales at retailers, and the discarded trees begin to line the gutters of neighborhoods. The celebrated joy and hope and gifts of the season end abruptly. The cacophony of Christmas skids to a halting silence.
It is in this silence that I want more Christmas. In the weeks after the jubilee has ended, I’m still pondering the biblical scriptures that discuss the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. No matter how our crèches and nativity scenes are arranged, I know it is in the days, weeks and months after Jesus’ birth that the shepherds and magi arrive. In these days and weeks, Jesus cries, and Joseph and Mary rock, soothe, lose sleep and offer sustenance like new parents have for centuries. In this time, a baby’s small face takes shape to look like the parents or grandparents; a tiny personality begins to emerge; the eyes open and search for the image attached to the familiar voices.
I have this feeling that just when society gets quiet and bored . . . just when the big celebration is over . . . in the silence of our memories . . . life becomes more nuanced and growth actually begins.
I suspect that Mary was aware of this and honored it. As the gospel of Luke recounts the narrative of Jesus’ birth, there are shepherds and declarations and rejoicing. Holding her newborn in her arms, Mary “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)
I hear Mary’s own silence amidst the activity around her.
As someone who lives with a depressive condition, this seems like an apt metaphor for how my depressions must appear to those around me.
When the days become shorter and the darkness of the night lingers well past the time of waking and working, I become quieter. My heart becomes heavy with the grief of missing a parent and grandparents during holy days. My mind is cloudy and I’m lucky to have two or three clear intellectual thoughts in a day. My feelings are described in monotone syllables: bad, sad, blue, gray, ugh. My ability to multitask wanes. I lose hours doing pretty much nothing while the dishes piles up, the work accumulates, and I don’t even care.
I slow down. I interact with fewer people. I go dark. I am silent.
This is how I feel to myself. So I imagine that from the outside, where there was once activity and vigor, there is now merely silence. No matter the energy and vigor of a holiday season, I feel that I have retreated. And, unlike the abrupt ending of the commercial season of Christmas, I cannot turn myself on and off like a switch, discarding my blues on the curb of my public life.
I cling to Mary’s model of silence in the midst of the celebration and chaos around her. I take everything in, but my responses are rather sedate. I focus on small details that can sustain me. When Mary must have reveled in the days and weeks of a baby reaching to hold a finger, the gradual formation of nasal tissue, the constant rocking and cooing, I too focus on small details: I laughed today; a friend came by and made me leave the house; a certain color sweater makes my eyes look brighter.
This is what depression in the midst of celebration looks like for me. Externally, I power down. Internally, I churn everything over and over inside of myself, looking for whatever will get me from one day to the next. And all of this is a very quiet process.
From my conversations with other people who live with depression conditions, I feel rather secure in saying that I’m not on the only one.
This is why I want more Christmas. I want the Christmas season to continue in the silence of sales gone by, so we can remember that that’s probably what Mary and Joseph did. I want to pay attention to Mary’s life after Jesus’ birth. I want someone to honor the silences of those carried in the currents of work and faith community activities.
This is harder. It’s hard to hear silences.
Mental health challenges don’t often come to the forefront of society’s attention until they explode, or are noisy, to grab our attention. Suicides, shootings, and shouting are more apt to bring to mind those who live with these challenges than anything else. And yet when we stop to ponder even these lives, the reports come back – she or he was often alone or never said much or never fought back.
So maybe I want these silences to be more than just honored. I want the silences to become a signal of internal churning. I want people to notice who’s not there and who’s not talking and who’s not writing and who’s not celebrating. Perhaps, the silences are just taking it all in. Pondering.
But perhaps the silent have powered down, gone dark, and need someone to shine a light of presence for the days, weeks and months until the next season of life begins again.