Pastor Walter Mitty was recently struck by how differently Poplar Parkers respond emotionally to the holidays.
For the members of his Community Church, the holiday season always begins on the Sunday before Thanksgiving with their Game Day event in which they transform the social hall into a sports bar and watch the Bears game on three big screens. Well, it’s not exactly a sports bar, because some of the more socially conservative church members resist even the thought of serving beer at the annual event.
Pastor Mitty felt grateful that they said it was OK for him to parboil in beer and onions the five-dozen Johnsonville brats he had brought back from Wisconsin.
During the game he observed how his members and their friends rode emotional roller coasters. When the Bears offense scored a go-ahead touchdown with just 1:40 remaining on the game clock, the social hall went bonkers. Hooting and hollering. Jumping up and down and giving each other high-fives.
Then, a little over a minute later the Ravens capped a 72-yard drive with their own go-ahead touchdown with 22 seconds left. All Mitty could think of to describe the transformed mood in the hall was how Jim McKay on Wide World of Sports used talk about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Ecstasy to depression in 78 seconds.
The agony of defeat was doubled because the same scenario had played itself out the week before.
* * *
Pastor Walt was in a good mood as he drove up to Manitowoc after the service at the Poplar Park Community Church last Thursday morning. It would be good to be with family. But after walking in the door of their home, he changed his mind about greeting them with “Happy Thanksgiving,” because Susan, Brian and Matt all looked like they had lost their best friend.
“Am I dense, or what?” Mitty muttered to himself. It had only been three years since Susan’s husband and the boys’ father had died, and his lighthearted mood immediately morphed into grief. After all, it was also his brother who had died too young, and he realized how much he too missed him.
* * *
His mood went from that emotional valley to the heights on the Sunday following Thanksgiving. After the service, the Sunday school children had their first Christmas pageant practice, which, from a theatrical standpoint, was a disaster, but none of the adults cared because they enjoyed seeing the kids so excited about being in the middle of the holidays — trick-or-treating followed by turkey day and then Santa — and the adults could let the flop go. After all, they had three more Sundays to practice.
* * *
He was still chuckling recalling the rehearsal fiasco when the phone rang. It was time for him and his good friend Michael Rosenthal to have their almost daily morning check-in.
“Happy Thanksgiving, Michael!” Mitty greeted his neighbor with a genuine sparkle in his voice.
“Thanks, Walt, but happy is not where I’m at right now.”
Pastor Walt swallowed hard. This was the second time in five days he had experienced an emotional ambush.
“I’m missing Ruth a lot,” Michael explained.
* * *
Pastor Walt loved Christmas. Walking in town on a still night with thousands of Christmas lights transforming his block into a fantasy land; the children’s choir singing “Silent Night” in candlelight; driving down to the Shedd Aquarium and gazing at the downtown skyline; dinner back “home” with Susan and the nephews.
* * *
“Michael, you sound so much better than you did when we talked last,” said Pastor Mitty when he next heard his friend’s voice on the phone.
“Walt, I guess you could call it a small miracle. You know that Hanukkah began last night, right? So when I lit my menorah, I started missing Ruth again. But then I read the Hanukkah story for the umpteenth time about how the Seleucid Greeks who were occupying Israel profaned the temple in Jerusalem. And how this small army of Jews …”
“You mean the Maccabees?”
“Yeah, the Maccabees, how they kicked the Greeks out and regained control of the temple.”
“Then the miracle of the oil for the temple menorah lasting eight days,” said Michael’s neighbor, “but it sounds like something happened in you, too.”
“Well see, those were dark days for those Jews, being occupied by the Greeks and all. And that story of this small band kicking out the Greeks — kind of like the David and Goliath story — and then those oil lamps glowing in the dark. … Somehow that story put me back on an emotional even keel.”
* * *
Pastor Walt set up his Advent wreath that evening and lit the first candle. As he sat in its glow in the darkness of his living room, he got to thinking about how the holidays function for many like an emotional amplifier. If all is right in your world, they make you feel even better. And if you are feeling in the pit, they make you feel even worse.
Well, all was not right in Mitty’s world. Far from it. There was a lot of good, of course, but it seemed like the one thing Americans of all political persuasions seemed to agree on was that the country was on its way to hell in a handbasket. And now the Omicron variant.
“When I was ordained,” he thought with a little embarrassment, “I was going to change the world. Now, seeing one candle glowing in the dark gives me hope.”
And when he got up the next morning, he found himself humming, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”