I knew this Christmas was going to be awful. And then I saw my neighbor's Christmas lights.
Christmas is just around the corner on the American horizon. It is so much more than a feast day or a commemoration of the birth of Jesus for faithful Christians. It is a cultural phenomenon that consumes enormous chunks of commercial and digital airspace from the day after Halloween, if not before. It is a time that inundates all other religious and cultural traditions and at times suggests inclusion. It's a marketing juggernaut and financial season for big and small.
It's a time when kids are the focus, no matter how mercenary and materialistic the underlying motivations are. It's a multi-sensory experience - lights, music, cookies, cider (and so much more food and much more drinks), crackling fires, the rounds of different Santas, and so much more tastes and smells and sights and sounds and textures that form a thousand layers Memories in our collective minds. It is invariably characterized by family get-togethers across the country or on the street to eat and drink, meet the babies, measure the children, welcome new partners and tell a thousand often heard stories.
There may have been an inevitable political stance lately regarding greetings, inclusion, and deletion. There are gifts - both thoughtful and superficial - and regifting. And there is joy, some of which is performative and some of which is real, deep and contagious.
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Christmas can be a time of deepest sadness even in a normal year. Its cultural impact always makes it a measure of the time that has passed since the death of a loved one. There are empty seats at our tables and around our trees - there are empty chairs at my family tables for my aunt and recently another for my mother - and gifts that are never given or received with children who do not see them their parents, grandparents, or maybe even their next Christmas.
We've had a difficult Christmas before, as individuals and as a society. We've had wartime Christmas, sad Christmas after losing loved ones, Christmas after divorce, and even Christmas when there are few living left to remember them.
It is for this reason that there are "blue" Christmas services that take care of the heartache the season brings and that allow people to mark the holiday without the happiness they may not feel or find painful. Christmas - and the entire season from Thanksgiving through New Years - can be painful for many people due to family alienation, broken hearts, and other broken relationships.
All of this was the case before millions of lives and hundreds of thousands of American families were destroyed by Covid-19.
For many people, this is a painfully tough Christmas. The losses we expect - or in some cases not - this year are unimaginable. They are intertwined with the bitterness resulting from a long season of electoral politics and the just outrage too few share over the continued murder of black women and men on the streets by law enforcement agencies. It is compounded by the mutual commitment that many of us feel like we are separated from the friends and family who would normally find comfort in times or crises.
However, as a solstice holiday, Christmas is just the right time to bring worries out of the shadows of the waning solstice through the twinkling lights of Christmas into a new year full of new hope and opportunity and the redistribution of light and shadow that comes with it is. The green and flowers of Christmas - fir trees, poinsettias and amaryllis - testify to the resilience of life even in the depths of our winter.
Personally, nothing speaks to me of the defiant joy at this Covid Christmas like my neighbor, who started hanging up Christmas lights the day after Halloween. The colored lights shone alone, with no other lights accompanying them, and shone like jewels that only adorned this one house. Seemingly in an instant, the creepy playfulness of Halloween had been replaced by twinkling Christmas lights that shone brightly, announcing that a time of joy was not just ahead of us, but was imminent. In truth, I don't know if this was unusual for her. But to me it seemed to be a signal to the universe that we are going to choose joy now - today; We won't wait.
This year I have watched individuals and communities begin their Advent and Christmas observations and decorations earlier than ever. And while some religious grinches advocate absolute consistency with the Christian calendar - no more celebrations than four Sundays before Christmas - more of us applaud and applaud the absolute determination of people to find joy in this very difficult time, let alone their choices to meet where necessary Create joy when no one is to be found.
And this year there will be joy; it has already begun to invade the world. It was a defiant joy in my neighbor's Peri Halloween Christmas lights. In every invitation to the opening of the Zoom gift, in every tiny apartment Christmas tree that no one has ever stood in, there is the determination to restore the joy of the season in every batch of not quite perfect cookies from a "pandemic cook", whether we can collect or not.
The lights of Christmas shine bright and defiant this year, aided by the lights of Hanukkah, which have their own story of defiance and resistance. I wish you a happy defiant Christmas, hope you had a happy Hanukkah, and pray that we all have a new year full of hope.
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