What stories have you been telling your grandchildren this holiday season? What kinds of stories have you been telling yourself?
People throughout recorded history seem to have always loved good stories because they entertain or provide an escape from reality or maybe even help both storytellers and hearers look at what they are experiencing in different ways.
Arguably the most popular story at this time of year is what I’ll call the Santa Narrative. You know how it goes. There’s a guy who is kind of a classic grandfather who lives at the North Pole and who somehow knows everything you’ve done — good and bad — this past year. If you’ve been good, he’ll load lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh, which is pulled by flying reindeer, land on the roof of your house while you are sleeping, slide down the chimney, and place your presents under the Christmas tree and/or in the stocking you’ve hung on the fireplace mantel.
Another popular story is the It’s All About Family Narrative. It’s like the Norman Rockwell painting titled, “Freedom From Want,” in which three generations of a family are seated around a long table and grandma is proudly presenting the turkey she has lovingly prepared. Everyone present is happy because that’s how family, at its best, makes you feel.
A third narrative is romantic. Look at what we do. Right at the time of year when the nights are the longest and the temperature can approach zero, we transform the darkness by stringing lights on the trees and bushes in front of our homes, holding candlelight services in church on Christmas Eve, watching little girls in white dresses repeat the angels’ greeting “be not afwaid” to little shepherd boys dressed in bathrobes, and listening to Nate King Cole sing, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.”
Everybody knows it’s the best time of the year to give her a diamond ring and pop the question. Everyone, it seems, tries to create an alternative reality in which every story has a happy ending.
So if you have enough cash in your checking account to supplement what Santa puts under your tree, be with family, and have someone to kiss under the mistletoe, then you can join Burl Ives and sing:
Have a holly, jolly Christmas,
It’s the best time of the year.
Oh, ho the mistletoe
Hung where you can see.
Somebody waits for you,
Kiss her once for me.
But if you’ve lost — someone to COVID, a marriage through divorce, the ability to be with family on Christmas Eve, a job, or a business — then Christmas 2020 might be the worst time of the year because “what used to be” seems to amplify the pain that is present in you right now.
The song that fits your mood, instead of “Joy to the World,” might be one The Emotions came out with way back in 1977:
‘Tis the season to be jolly
But how can I be when I have nobody.
The yuletide carol doesn’t make it better
Knowing that we won’t be together.
What do the lonely do at Christmas?
Oh, what do the lonely do at Christmas time?
The Christmases — after my father died at 50 years old and then 17 years later after my divorce became final — were dark, despairing days for me. No light at the end of the tunnel. No rockin’ around the Christmas tree. My only option seemed to be “fake it till I make it.”
The only story that helped was the one about a young woman getting pregnant before she was married, and when she tried to explain that “God did it,” her friends snickered and said, “Yeah, right, and Santa is skinny enough to slide down your chimney.”
In that story a lot of things go wrong — no room at the inn and fleeing to Egypt as refugees to escape a paranoid, ruthless ruler. But a lot of unexpected good things happened as well: shepherds telling an unbelievable story about an angel bearing good news and the three wise men on camels following a star.
Hallmark and Disney always want to turn the story into a romantic fantasy in which tragic story lines are instantly transformed by the arrival of the cavalry or Spiderman or a politician who promises to make everything right again.
No, this story is about real life — no instant gratification, no simple solutions — and what is transformed is not a polarized, broken world but the souls of those few who trust the messengers enough to live the narrative they have been told.
So which story are you telling yourself, and your children and your grandchildren, this Christmas? All of them are good and meaningful when told at the right time and in the right place. The question seems to be: “Do we need an escape from — or strength and courage to deal with — reality?”
Maybe it’s a generous portion of both.