Friday, December 4, 2009

Get there before Christmas…

Something caught my eye in the post office the other day; a sign with a message about Holiday expectations. The basic gist was that if you wanted your package to arrive in x part of the country by Christmas Eve, you’d have to send it by y date; if z state, you must send by w date, and so on. Of course, the farther it had to travel, the greater need to plan ahead. But what piqued my attention was that for packages traveling in the Midwest- to Denver, or even Kansas City- the sign demanded two weeks lead time (if my memory serves…). “Wow,” I thought, “That same letter during other times of year takes only two days!” And if you’re shipping Christmas gifts to California, add another week or two as well.

So pray for our postwomen and men! I’m sure Christmas packages take this long because of increased Holiday volume. USPS employees (and UPS, FedEx…) will work extra hard, but hopefully those signs will help. Better preparation will make customers less anxious about the punctuality of gifts (how’s that for optimism!). At the very least, I’m happy they make these dates available. It’ll help my planning in years to come.

It got me thinking- Why do we go through all this trouble during Christmas? Why do we work so hard to get everything together in time, travel such long distances, spend so much money? What makes any holiday, but this holiday especially, worth so much effort?

Honestly, I bet a big part of that answer is obligation, or if you prefer, tradition. It’s our cultural and religious tradition to, every year, make a big deal about these holidays and the few weeks prior. Families have always gotten together, whether they particularly wanted to or not. Gifts are always searched for and bought, sometimes elatedly, sometimes grudgingly. Some years, fulfilling these traditions, and the associated obligations fill us with joy and mirth. Other years, not so much. But we do them because we’ve always done them, and feel like we should take it seriously.

I don’t want that to sound like a bad thing. Tradition and obligation, in many respects, are wonderful. They prompt to actions that may seem burdensome at first, ultimately are worthwhile, meaningful, even fun. My junior year in High School, I told Mom I didn’t like my teammates, and thus was quitting soccer. She said, “No,” made me play, and we won the State Championship. Some obligations really work out just fine.

Nevertheless, for any tradition or obligation to remain meaningful, something important must be behind it. Mom told me to play soccer because she thought, regardless how I felt about my teammates at the moment, my love for the game and athletics was deeper. And she was right. The same goes for the Holidays, I suspect. Behind the traditions and feelings of obligation lie important, life-giving values. For many, the values of family connectedness and intimacy make all the fuss and bother of travel, presents and dirty, dirty kitchens well worth the struggle. That’s true during years you’re angry with your relatives as much as those years you’re feeling good.

But the Christmas Holidays are more than family reunions. They’re religious festivals, so presumably the deeper meanings derive from faith-inspired values too. Back in the day, these festivals broke up the monotony of cold, post-harvest winter months, by providing spectacle and beauty to otherwise dreary days. They reminded poor peasants and wealthy nobility alike that the glory of God, and the glorious nature of what God did for this world through the little child Jesus, overcame all things tedious or ugly, and transcended even the best we humans could imagine for ourselves. Sure, it took a lot of work for these festivals to go just right, but from a religious person’s perspective, that effort paled in comparison to what God and Jesus did, and still does, for us. So they were happy to reciprocate, in whatever small measure. I pray that’s as true for our Christmas this year as it has been in ages past. It’s a grand tradition, I’d say. In all things,

Grace and Peace,