When people ask if it’s hard to come up with column ideas week after week, I snort derisively. You’ve gotta be kidding, I gloat. Can’t beat the ideas off with a stick.
Except when a holiday looms.
I suppose it’s a problem to those from whom regular offerings are expected – we need to produce something patriotic for the 4th of July, or romantic for Valentine’s, or thankful for Thanksgiving.
The preacher certainly faces this challenge, and so do the choirmaster, the storekeeper, the stand-up comic, even the cook.
The preacher must think of yet another way to tell the story every member of her flock has heard since infancy. The story is so simple, yet so profound – how can she repeat it in a manner that commands attention?
The musicmaster must try to remember whether it was last year or two years ago when everybody everywhere had Gesu Bambino on their program. And if he does Christmas music during Advent, he’ll hear from the purists who – like me – want to save the emotion of “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” for Christmas Eve at the earliest. If he holds out, in conformity with the church season, he’ll hear from those who have been tearing up over “I’ll be home for Christmas” since Halloween.
Likewise, the merchant. To get a jump on the competition, he feels he must get his store a-tinseled while the jack-o-lanterns are still grinning, knowing it’s tacky and hating himself for it. His dilemma: how, in a shopping mall, can he commercialize on the season without commercializing on the season?
The cook’s job may be a bit easier too, for the opposite reason. Some holidays demand exactly the same meal every year to qualify as holidays. Grilled burgers on the 4th, turkey on Thanksgiving, black-eyed peas and greens on New Year’s no-brainers all.
But pity the poor columnist who has poured her heart into Christmas wishes for her readers year after year, and finds herself in a quandary similar to the preacher’s – especially since I usually adapt the same as a family newsletter.
Rereading columns of past Christmases, I find only one or two worthy of faxing off to the Pulitzer committee.
So again the anguish: How to stir hearts, how to invoke a tear or two, or an up-welling of peace on earth and good will in the bosoms of those who slip the plastic sleeve off their newspaper and expect to be moved?
How to catch up old friends with the health news our family wants to share, that things could be better, but are not really bad. How to be with those who are in despair as deep as our joy is high.
If the advancing years do nothing else, at least they infuse us with a bit more sense, a trifle more wisdom, a modicum of restraint. I can’t blather on and on in red and green script about our happiness, when a friend is dealing with her mother’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.
When another is living from lab report to lab report, from transfusion to transfusion.
When a family will consider themselves lucky if they get to share Christmas dinner with a son in jail.
When the circle around table or tree has an agonizing gap in it.
When children are hauled to the next county for two Christmases in 12 hours, as per their parents’ custody arrangements.
When teens are struggling with the loss of their whole world in the wake of their family’s moving to another state.
In the presence of grief, happiness must not be flaunted. But joy is more than happiness, and the joy is there, underlying even sorrow.
There is no new and clever way to say it. God came to earth as a helpless child, and nothing was ever the same again.
That’s all that’s certain. No guarantees of happiness, no miraculous cures.
Only the steady, unwavering promise that God is with us, Emanuel.