For some years now, I have experienced Christmas as a let down, an anticlimactic finish to a season bursting with pent up expectation. More and more in a complicated age, people are striving to live lives of simplicity. However, materialism and consumerism are rampant and often contribute to a deep inner sense of dissatisfaction and unease. Even those of us who don't want to find it hard to resist the lure and glitter of a season dedicated to shopping and excess.
In our hearts though, we understand, consumerism and materialism in all their dazzling, empty glory lead to empty hearts and searching souls.
Empty hearts and searching souls create a sense of desperation.
Sometimes we look outward rather than inward. Though not at all bad in and of themselves, a beautifully decorated house, Christmas carols playing in the background, expensive heaps of presents under a glittering tree, the Christmas rush that people enjoy getting caught up in so as to avoid thinking of anything meaningful are all just ways to avoid preparing the spirit for what Christmas actually is. Though I also do all of the above, none of those things denote a readiness for Christmas.
I think the most beautiful Christmas my husband and I have spent together was the year we were able to go away for the season. We celebrated Christmas in a foreign city with just each other for company. It had none of the usual trappings of the season. We didn't have gifts with us or dress up but most importantly, we weren't weighed down by tradition or stress or anybody's expectations of how we should celebrate a "proper" Christmas. We felt light, happy and free of obligation.
Christmas Eve rolled around quietly. We woke up in the morning in our little hotel room in a converted convent in the center of Naples and decided to go to Pompeii. I deliberated awhile over what to wear, I wanted something old being under the mistaken impression that after a couple thousand years the ash from Mount Vesuvius would still be hanging heavy in the air. We walked out into Naples, sunny, clear and cool and found a crowded train to our destination. We arrived and spent hours walking around the remains of villas and pagan temples. We admired frescoes that even today retain their original colors. Surprisingly vivid yellows, pinks, reds and purples. We snapped some pictures, felt sorry for the stray dogs, pensively regarded the great black volcano looming in the distance and sat in the solitude of this ancient place, soaked it in along with the sunshine and left again, relatively clean and definitely ash free.
Later when we were hungry, we roamed the dark streets looking for a restaurant that was open. We found a small family run place. There were two other couples there, one just finishing their meal and paying. They didn't have enough money and there was a lot of arm waving, loud talking and laughing (nobody was upset or embarrassed). The owner of the restaurant gestured to the people at the other table and sure enough they pulled out some money and covered the rest of the other couples meal, laughing and shaking their heads though it was obvious from their expressions they had no idea who these people were. We ate delicious food, communicated in sign language with the owner which came in handy when I couldn't finish my meal. It was a great insult not to eat every bite. I saved myself with a loud sigh and lots of patting my stomach with an exaggerated look of sorrow on my face at not being able to finish. This sufficed and though not entirely pleased the owner smiled and reluctantly took my plate away. He came back with a soccer ball which he started kicking around by our table while shooting expectant glances our way. We were duly impressed at his skill.
When we left it was very late, meals in Italy can drag on for hours. Being almost time for midnight mass, we again roamed the streets this time looking for a church. Finally we found one that was open and we went in, were embraced by the warmth and soft light of an ancient church at midnight on Christmas Eve, one of the most holy nights of the year. The Italian mass flowed all around us, we watched children's faces shining, knelt and prayed that the coming year might be better than the past one. The peace of God was tangible and I thought that this is what Christmas is. Being here. Letting go of the grief and pain of the past year. Letting this mass be the focal point of our Christmas celebration.
And that year, there was no anticlimax. I guess there doesn't have to be one after all. I often feel discouraged by how much importance material possessions are given, but I guess that's a personal choice. We can choose to rush around being proud at how busy we are while avoiding the most meaningful things or we can choose to relax, be peaceful and enjoy every minute of a beautiful and joyful season.
Wishing everyone a very happy Christmas this year!
Me @ Pompeii on Christmas Eve