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Of holidays and anniversaries

Last Sunday, December 21, was the 6-month anniversary of my brother’s death. It was also the Winter Solstice. It was also someone’s birthday, someone’s wedding anniversary, the day someone’s life fell apart, the day someone died, the day a new baby was born, and for some people, a day that meant nothing in particular.

For me and my family, this coming December 25 will be the first Christmas that we will spend without my brother to be with or talk to. For some it will be a joyous day of Christmas celebration. For others it will be a holiday that doesn’t live up to expectations or to the memory of past Christmases. For some it will be Thursday, with no significance whatsoever. For others it will carry personal meaning such as a birthday or anniversary. For yet others it will be an anniversary of something deeply painful. All over the world, each person will experience December 25 uniquely, as they will each day of the year.

Dates are just dates, but we humans often load them with meaning. Sometimes we choose to set a certain date apart, such as when we plan a life event. Sometimes a date becomes significant for reasons outside of our control, such as when a birth or a death occurs. Sometimes our religious practice or ethnic heritage or national allegiance leads us to honor a date. However it happens, particular dates loom large on the calendar, waiting for us to decide how to mark their importance. And it is indeed our own decision. Whether a tradition originates in religious practice such as a midnight Christmas Eve service or the lighting of a yahrzeit candle, or whether we come up with our own ways to commemorate an event, we choose our actions.

Sometimes our choices memorably fit our needs, creating a standout experience of a significant day. Take a moment to think of one you’ve had. You know what I’m talking about, glorious moments in time that sparkle where they lay on the memory pile in our minds, organic and real.

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Other times, though, we make choices that don’t fit our needs; for whatever reason, we aren’t able to honor the truth of the time. One way we do this is to hang on to traditions past the time when they serve us well. Understandably, people often throw familiar ingredients together – the same cast of characters, the same food, the same activity, the same music – in the hopes of recreating a glorious moment. Sometimes it comes close and we enjoy it. Other times it falls short, perhaps leaving a vague sense of dissatisfaction, a hangover sort of feeling instead of the warm afterglow we remember. Why? Perhaps it is because our expectation doesn’t match the new reality that change, with its constant shifting of the sands beneath our feet, has brought. Maybe the children are older and have different needs and desires. Maybe divorce, a move, or death has taken one or more people out of the group. Maybe age, illness, or financial difficulty has changed where people gather or what they can eat. Maybe circumstances have changed what people believe and need. These changes are not always easy to accept. So often we hang on too tightly, and cope with the dissatisfaction as best we can, sometimes looking for blame outside ourselves.

When we are able to see what is and make choices that respond to it, though, we can find new experiences that give us what we need. Years ago when my husband and I were engaged, we added the lighting of the menorah to my parents’ Christmastime activities. For several years, when my son was young and fireworks made him hysterical with fear, we cut fireworks attendance out of our traditional July 4 activities. A cousin of mine who lost her husband to cancer this year took her daughter on a trip for the holidays, and they honored his memory by attending a football game featuring her husband’s favorite team. Perhaps a new choice will become a tradition that continues to work for a while. Perhaps it will be a one-time response to a new circumstance. Either way, if it feels right, it is worth trying.

As I navigate this December 25 and other holidays, and as I think ahead to days of personal significance such as the anniversary of my cancer surgery, my brother’s birthday, and the anniversary of his death, I am trying to stay aware of what I need. I know that I don’t want to give these days more weight than they already carry. I also know that this weight is likely to change over time – my brother’s birthday ten years from now may hold an entirely different energy for me. So I aim to feel that weight first, and see how it affects me, before I decide how to respond to it. And then I will make choices. I hope my choices allow me to meet a day where it is, and to take something useful away from it even if it is a painful place to be.

Somehow, I cope a little better when I think about how a day that presents an enormous challenge for me is a different experience for someone else. It brought me a measure of calm to think how this past December 21, even as I struggled to pull out of the pall it cast over me, others elsewhere in the world were celebrating a victory or a special occasion, welcoming a new life, or simply going about their business with a feeling of satisfaction. The whole spectrum of human experience was happening on December 21, as it is on every day of the year. When I contemplate that I feel connected to everyone – a partner in sorrow with those who were suffering that day, and a beneficiary of the positive energy released from those experiencing joy.

Tune in to yourself and your circumstances this holiday season, and over again as days that hold significance for you come up throughout the year. Whether you continue an annual tradition, experience something totally new, or combine the two, choose what you need. Give consideration to any idea that intrigues you, even if it lies miles outside of your traditions or your family’s habitual activities. Even if it challenges your assumptions about yourself. As years go by and you greet important dates with an open mind and an honest sense of who you are, you will be more likely to get what you need – and maybe even make a new jewel of a memory to keep.

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