The first hint of silliness came from a coworker who said “Bless you,” when I sneezed. She waited, expecting a thank you, like a bellhop looking for a tip.
She became further irritated later when she sneezed and I didn’t bless her. I don’t think Pope Gregory the Great, who started this little superstition during the Bubonic Plague, expected it to become contentious. And if Medieval denizens were correct, my soul might have escaped through my nose when I sneezed, so I had more important things to worry about.
In an effort not to offend, I wish you Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas, or Happy Christmas, or Merry Holidays. I hope I’m covered. Oh, and Happy Saturnalia to my pagan friends. Sorry Jews, you haven’t made enough fuss, and Hanukkah came too early this year. And Kwanza, well people who celebrate that are used to being ignored.
Some Christians (too many)– in a world filled with real problems — are again grinding their teeth about the expression “Happy Holidays,” which is not a new expression. I remember it when I was a kid. I always assumed it was a succinct way to cover Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year. I see it on Facebook: “If you still say Merry Christ then repost this…”
I’m not sure who’s not saying Merry Christmas, though. I hear it about 10 times a day. Our Muslim president said over and again on TV last week. My Jewish friend at work even said it to me.
There are rumors that atheists out there are snapping at every person who deigns to wish them a Merry Christmas, but I haven’t met these people. And I know atheists; I live in California. Legendary American freethinker, Robert Ingersoll, would probably have at most poked fun at Christmas’s lumbering presence. I’m sure he would have congenially said “Merry Christmas” back to well-meaning Christians. Agreed, atheist author and scientist Richard Dawkins might take a crankier approach.
However, if non-Christians have any reason for discontent, it is the protest from Christians who feel they are being oppressed in a country where they are the overwhelming majority. It’s like the coach whose football team is up 60-3 and still complains to about officiating. I have never understood why any religion feels the need to be the one, true path to salvation. Likewise, why does the way someone celebrates or greets others at this time of year matter.
Several 24 hours ago, I stopped drinking. The first approach of Christmas was reason for anxiety. This was a season during which whiskey flowed and I had done more than my share of damage. On Christmas Eve I felt as fragile as a the decorations on the tree. I did my best to shrink Christmas like the wool Reindeer sweater your great aunt gave you. It was in my interest to watch it pass like any other day. I read a slender book by the environmentalist Bill McKibbens called the Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas, in which he called for simplifying, and then simplifying more. His advice was exactly what I needed as I tried to make a big, loud drunken holiday into something small, quiet and sober. A holiday that had promised regret and disappointment now was simple and reflective. I observed Christmas.
I have continued to be something of a wallflower at the Christmas dance, keeping my distance from the noise and size of the season.
I am not opposed to Christmas. It is my wife’s favorite time of the year. My children’s too. My daughter’s bedroom looks like a scene from the film “Elf.” We don’t live in a Christian country, but most Americans are Christian. This holiday will never hold the warmth, comfort and magic of childhood. I sought that in deceptive warmth of my special Christmas bottle (which ended up being bottles), but I always ended up filled with regret, and sorrow, a failed father who couldn’t remember his children opening presents.
I see no reason to concern myself that this season doesn’t fit my expectations. I have made it an exercise in acceptance, a reminder that all I have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of my spiritual condition. To do otherwise would be a waste of energy and peace of mind.
Christmas concerts have been renamed winter concerts. There are no more manger scenes or Christmas trees at schools. On the other hand there are no menorahs or Stars of David either.
If parents are concerned about the presence of Jesus in their children’s lives, they can do something about that at home. Those who clamor for Christmas and prayer in their schools claim they are only concerned about their children, but I suspect they want things the way they used to be, when they were kids. This desire is as old as civilization. The result is, too. The only thing that stays the same is change. No matter how much we want it, no matter how much whiskey I drank, we’re not going back. The reason is, the next generation doesn’t care. They don’t know any different, except from our stories, and those get boring after a time. They don’t care what their concerts are called. Mostly, they don’t want to sing in them. They don’t notice that there are no Christmas decorations at school. They have them at home.
When we look a little deeper at the past we will find that things weren’t as different back then as we remember.
Our kids share one very important thing with us. When we were young, we didn’t care what our parents did either.
All we wanted to do was open our presents.
It’s been a day since my cousin Brian found his son Jacob unresponsive on a bathroom floor. I feel bleary, heavy, trying to grasp such sudden and gaping loss. My imagination won’t leave me alone, circling the way it happened.
Brian and I grew up together and I don’t remember ever seeing him sad. His laugh bounced around and exploded like a sneeze. I remember once Brian was helping me move and he peppered my brother and me with dirty jokes in the cab of the Ryder truck. Brian’s jokes were terrible, but his giddy laugh incapacitated us. To say it was infectious is like saying a tornado is breezy. I couldn’t see the road and my stomach cramped. More than once I slowed down, considered pulling to the shoulder until I could sit up and see straight.
This weekend, at the moment of Brian’s greatest heartbreak, I imagine my cousin’s capacity for joy in all-consuming contrast, turned upon himself in bottomless sorrow and roaring despair.
Jacob was his father’s son. Almost every testimony on social media recalls his infectious laugh and irreverent humor, his knack for sensing when people needed kindness, a talent for making everyone around him feel good, all gifts of his nursing parents.
My experiences with Jacob were originally on the soccer field, where he and my son, the other Jacob Madden, formed an aggressive and intimidating defense at LeBlond High School. Due to his physical play, I recall Jacob among the league leaders in Yellow Card warnings, each of which he accepted with a smirk. Jacob played with a grinning recklessness and devil-may-care style that was true to his personality. Jacob and I shared some of the same struggles over the years. I kept tabs from a distance, pulling for him and quietly celebrating his successes. Like others with these struggles, he was filled with passions and a desire to take care of others. He likely surprised those around him with sudden expressions of concern or encouragement.
Jacob was his father’s son.
Brian has always felt deeply, laughed with all his heart, and carried an infectious joy to those around him. I hear over and over with pride that he is among the best nurses, filled with compassion and tenderness — and always laughter. I remember in a junior varsity basketball game, Brian’s coach assigned him to guard me. As I brought the ball up court I heard the familiar giggle. I fell apart laughing. My coach yanked me and yelled, “What the hell’s your problem!” All I could say was, “That’s my cousin.”
Now, in his own words, Brian’s heart is broken. All the glory of his infectious laugh and famed compassion is now sorrow so deep that one wonders if he can stand and hold the pieces of his heart together.
It is time for Brian — and for that matter Julie, Jacob’s mother, his sister Nicole, his grandmother Connie, and his Aunts Linda, Beth, Debra, and Michelle– to recognize that suffering is every bit as infectious as laughter. As hard as I laughed in the cab of that truck that day, or on that basketball court, that’s exactly how hard I hurt for my cousin. As incapacitated as Brian’s laugh left me, so it is with his grief. The reach of Brian’s heart was just the beginning.
Jacob was his father’s son.