Christmas has become more and more conflicted for me over the past few years. I know I’m not the first person to be put off by the pressure to buy consumer goods for anyone and everyone in my life, but there is more to it than a social critique. It’s the dead tree in the living room. It’s the conflict between loving our traditions because they are ours and they have meaning to our family, and feeling critical and curious about what these traditions really mean. I don’t even understand what a christmas tree is really about. We cut down a beautiful young tree, set it upright in our house and decorate it with small toys and candy? Having studied ceremony, the symbolism of this one is unclear to me.
In fact, after recently sitting in ceremonies passed down through generations over hundreds and thousands of years in which every aspect of what you do has a story, a significance, and an impact on the experience, it’s hard for me to not see our hodge-podge assortment of Christmas traditions as being shallow and seemingly devoid of value, save what we imbue them with with our own belief. And still, even when imbued with our own sense of value, simply saying something has a value doesn’t make it so. I am experiencing more and more, and in deeper and more profound ways, the importance of actions over words; we may say that Christmas is about generosity and good will, but how do we demonstrate that?
Rather, if Christmas is about generosity and good will, and family too, how can we create or live in our traditions with greater meaning and vitality? I believe ceremony and tradition are ways of communally reaffirming what we believe, what we value, and what we want for our future generations. If that is the case than traditions and ceremonies should be executed with the same level of intention and thoughtfulness that we say our prayers with.
ANYWAY. I was wondering about all of this as my family and I decorated our tree this year. My dear brother loves our family and our family traditions and though he seems uninterested in what those traditions mean even to himself, his attachment to practicing our traditions has been one of the main motivations for us in the past few years. So when my mom lost steam on the tree a couple nights ago, he went out with a saw and a drill to get the tree ready. Dad, sensing it was time to fulfill his part in this family ceremony, went out to join him and advise. I could go out and help but the reality is that it’s a simple task and even two people is kind of overkill. It’s sort of sweet to see him and dad on the front porch with their tools doing this task together. Yet another internal conflict is raised; there is a part of me that deeply honors the male, masculinity, and it’s honorable expression through doing service for family and community. There is another part of me that is unsettled both by the gender roles that are acted out through traditions like this and by the maintenance of any un-thought-through status quo.
Still another part of me says lighten up and drink your damn cider, it’s just a blippin’ Christmas tree.
So we began to decorate the tree, passing the lights to each other around the back, untangling and arranging the strands amongst the fresh green needles (for which I felt a sense of connected sadness, as though for a relative or family member, for this beautiful little life, marked for death the moment it miraculously came to life. Just the idea of fields of Christmas trees marked for cutting awakens the revolutionary in me that wants to organize those trees for freedom! Silly perhaps, but I love the one-leggeds).
The joyful anthropologist in me is also seeing our ornaments in a whole new way too. We have musical instruments, bells, lot’s of birds and little animals, moons, suns, stars, angels, gifts from friends and family, fruit, and other basically pagan symbols. We’ve never been a religious family, but having seen the kind of ornaments people have on their trees I now see a different story written on ours- one that involves beauty, music, the natural world, and kinship.
I do sort of enjoy my brother’s fixation on these traditions, in lieu of him telling me how much the family means to him, I can see it written on his heart when he persists about the decorations and how they should be done.
I’ve been thinking about gifts for he and my dad. They don’t expect anything from me, nor I of them, since we’re all just getting by at this point. But for some reason this year I felt like I wanted to honor them in a special way, my mom and other family members too. It’s not about a gift, it’s a form a communication that I have begun to understand this year. At my ordination ceremony for example, some gifts were given. They were small, handcrafted, useful tokens. A rattle, a shell, a sage bundle, a ceremonial stole, a passed down ring from my Aunt, a beaded medicine wheel-these items have become so precious to me. Partially because of the context, and partially because of what they honored in me- my sacredness. And now I find myself wanting to do that for my family because I love them.
It was easy for my mom, my aunt, my cousins; as women there are lots of ways we appreciate being honored and esteemed. It has been more difficult for the men in my life. I want to honor their sacredness, their masculinity, their importance in my life and in the life of our family, but I really don’t know how to communicate that to them in a way that it will be meaningful to both of us. To add to this sense of uncertainty comes my feeling that what I want to express to my brother is something in a language we have yet to speak together, and that however much heart I pour into my intention and gift, it won’t be received that way. I don’t know that he won’t receive it that way, and I question the relevance of how it is received anyway… Isn’t the intention the point? I can’t be attached to how it is received.
What I’ve come to find is that this gift giving opportunity has unveiled my own sense of dissatisfaction with my relationship with my brother. In other words, I have a lot to say that I’m scared to say outright and I’ve been relating to the gift as though it were a magic expression that would carry all the words I want to say and he would hear them if I chose the right object. I know this sounds silly, but I also know that a token can communicate so much. So I’ve been conceiving of these gifts as a means of communicating to him what I love about him, what I want from him and who I want him to be, instead of honoring who he is right now and what our relationship is right now.
With all of that meaning piled on to a simple token of love, no wonder I’m feeling conflicted and constrained…
The truth at this point is that I need to tell my brother what I feel about our relationship directly, not communicate to him through code or metaphor. I know he loves me, he even says that. Christmas brings these things up for me because it feels like an opportunity to express to people what they mean to you, an opening for sincere conversation that is motivated by love. The joyful laughter filled friendships I have with other men and women is the quality of friendship I want to have with my brother- camaraderie, bigheartedness, sincerity, and understanding.
Yet I feel I’m mourning that my brother doesn’t make a point of having a real relationship with me. This sense of vacancy in our friendship is a real challenge for me, and I have to catch myself when I feel like I’m not important enough or valuable enough for him to make an effort to know or spend time with. I’ve noticed that sometimes I have similar feelings of doubt when I meet other men about my or my brother’s age; my first thought sometimes is an insecure doubt that they will really want to know me. This isn’t my brother’s fault, I’m sure he’s got his own stories about what our relationship is or means. But it is a reality that feels closer and closer to the surface this year and that means it’s time to be with it.