Faithfully, Into the Dark
Onward we go, faithfully, into the dark
And are there angels singing overhead? Hark.
(from “December” by Gary Johnson)
For the past 48 hours, I have been awash in friends’ holiday greetings—no, more specifically, in their Christmas greetings—accompanied in most cases by ritual best wishes for the coming year.
The truth is, I love receiving such greetings. I’m just as susceptible to “cute,” “sweet,” and “sentimental” as the next guy. I like being thought of.
At the same time, I have to admit that they leave me all but mute. I don’t know how to respond to greeting cards (virtual or in paper form) or to publicly posted holiday pictures and updates, the electronic equivalent, I suppose, of the old-fashioned “Christmas letter” or “holiday card with family portrait” sent indifferently to one’s Christmas card list. (I vaguely remember having a Christmas card list. Slightly less vaguely, I recall buying greeting cards meant to appease the voracious demands and insidious guilt aroused by said list. I am also sure, at some point in my life, that I did Scotch-tape the Christmas cards I received to the wall or propped them up on the mantel, but I can’t specifically remember when. To tell the truth, I can’t specifically remember ever having a mantel.)
Still, I’ve never known quite what to say to these onslaughts of well wishing, these imperatives of happiness. And yet I have resonated (and I still do resonate) to the implicit messages of “hope” in such greetings: have a lovely holiday; best wishes for the new year; peace and joy to you and yours.
Who doesn’t want others to speculate positively on his behalf regard futures in peace and joy? Who wouldn’t enjoy a lovely holiday? Who doesn’t appreciate knowing that others are wishing him well?
But I also recognize the finger-crossing, a-pinch-of-salt-over-your-shoulder, propitiatory nature of the greetings that we rain down on each other at this time of year. I see the gesto scaramantico (the apotropaic gesture – a great word that isn’t used nearly enough in English). I realize the grim determination to think good thoughts, to banish the negative, to refuse to spend a neuron’s worth of energy on “the bad stuff.” Especially not now. Not now when, at last, the days have finally started lengthening again, when there’s a fraction’s worth more light every day and we’re headed back toward the sun.
Something in all that troubles me. Why would we make the apotropaic gesture, why would we say or write the words that ward off trouble, if not because we are all too conscious of trouble’s existence? Don’t the greetings themselves, in their insistent cheerfulness, conjure up precisely what we’re not supposed to be talking about at this time of year?
I suppose what I’d like is for there to be a different kind of greeting we could send one another during this season. A greeting that expressed all the warmth and affection and fellow-feeling that I genuinely believe we harbor toward our friends and loved ones and yet which, at the same time, conveyed what strikes me as a fuller, more humane context: “I wish all that for you, knowing that we suffer and will go on suffering.”
For me, there was precious little peace in 2009, to be honest. And I was hardly alone. Like few other years, or so it seemed to me, 2009 brought serious illness, loss, fear, unemployment, depression, isolation, divorce, anxiety about the future, even desperation into the lives of many—perhaps most—of the people I know. Not in every way and not at every moment, but still. It was there. Perhaps 2009 wasn’t even a record year; I haven’t been keeping statistics. I do know that I was much more deeply aware of it.
So what I’d like is a holiday greeting that inspired solidarity and friendship and tender feeling but not forgetfulness. I want a Christmas card that brings me a sincere wish for peace and joy but that doesn’t suggest, even subtly, that I am a failure (a Grinch, a Scrooge) if my heart remains heavy.
It could say, perhaps, “Congratulations for having participated in another year of being human” or “My thoughts are with you as you face this terrifying, intimidating, wonderful adventure” or “We have come through trouble and survived: let us be merciful with ourselves, and vigilant toward the pain of others, even as we are grateful.”
Or, since “hope” is so much the word of the season, it might say this, as Lu Xun once wrote: “Hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is like roads upon the earth. For in the beginning, there were no roads; but when many people pass one way, a road is made.”
When I read words like that, I experience what I think others intend for me to experience when they send their notes and cards and photos and poems during the holidays: Comfort. Joy. Great tidings of.
And a good reason to keep on walking on the earth, even after Christmas.