Over time, I have learned to think of this time of the year in the US as the season of “Great Expectations”, explanatory without being biased. The “season” begins with Thanksgiving, edging toward the week book-ended by Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, then quietly easing toward January 6, or some nearby date. To engage with this “season” we opt to upend most of our daily lives and practices. While for many there are engagements with both religious and family traditions, for others the “season” is simply an annual event awash in expectations, sometimes silently viewed as more onerous than gratifying.
Why expectations? Because we create them early, in small children, with a range of explanations and compelling stories. I did with my young daughters. There is often a moral component, with the “naughty or nice” option and the “gifts or coal” outcomes. As the child matures through life, we refine and reinforce the basic expectations, providing experiences of enforcement as necessary. I suspect most people, engaged in the expectation process of the season, have at least one story of the gift they had hoped for and did not receive. Every year they can then recall that moment, and reactivate that reaction.
While we have claimed ourselves open to a variety of other concurrent “holiday” narratives, with Hanukkah enjoying the most predictable visibility in the CVS card section, the center piece of the “season” tends to be Christmas with a vast set of societal mores infused throughout our culture. While we state we are celebrating the birth of “Christ”, very little actually expresses that interpretation as apparent or central. The “holiday” we have created is often experienced as an inner chorus of “should and should not” messages that we grapple with as best we can.
I tend to not discuss this perception about these “expectations” because it can often be perceived as curmudgeonly, as if I were trying to make manifest a modern day “Scrooge”. Scrooge himself, as a story, aptly personifies my point: we expect people to behave a certain way, and their failure to do so is judged harshly. We create a miracle to reinstate the expectation. Humans are to engage with this “season” with joy, generosity, participation, celebration…all good stuff. There will be gifts and we will like the gifts and feel deep gratitude. The depth and breadth of reinforcement of all this is sometimes simply stunning.
I grew up in the upper Midwest of the US, where the winters, much like the northern tier of states both east and west of us, have the proper conditions for creating iconic images of this season, especially the falling snow and the fir trees dotting the hillside, waiting to move into our living rooms. In the Midwest, you can even go pick your tree, chop it down, or buy one that you can later plant in your backyard where it will fit in nicely with the other trees. It is hard to overstate how paramount snow scenes are in dominating our stories of this season, its expressions, customs, art and music. These become part of our expectations.
And these snow scenes with their mandatory fir trees were the awarenesses that helped me reflect upon this season and notice that expectations seemed to dominate the entire series of events and experiences. I discovered that I harbored a vibrant “should and should not” inner directory. I had spent most of my life in Iowa, Illinois, or Wisconsin (with some brief stretches in Missouri, which I do not consider a true “Midwestern” state). On New Year’s Eve in 1993, a few hours before midnight and a few weeks before I turned 50, I crossed the causeway that took me from the mainland of Texas to the barrier reef island of Galveston. I was no longer a resident of the Midwest.
My trip from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I had lived for 18 years, to a new job and a new life in Galveston, Texas took me three days, days of virtually nonstop crying. I was revisiting the insight that just because you knew that the next situation where you belonged involved a new space and place, and you could affirm this, did not mean that your heart could not be shattered by what you left behind. I had a huge support network, a professional identity, a life history and traditions. I had raised my daughters in Wisconsin: when they went “home” to visit, I would be elsewhere. And the culture shock evoked by moving from Wisconsin to Texas was exactly that: shocking. I had started the drive south right after Christmas, a holiday I barely remember: I do remember there was snow, lots of snow.
Galveston Island is a long skinny sandbar off the east coast of Texas, 32 miles long and 2 miles wide at its widest point. A devastating hurricane in 1900 led to the building of a protective seawall along the northeastern portion of the island that faced the Gulf of Mexico. The seawall drive along the Gulf is the central artery to travel the length of the island. I drove on the island, knowing partially where I was because I had visited before, and turned to head southwest on the seawall, toward the home I had purchase through mail and phone exchanges, having only seen it once for 10 minutes. I was tired and anxious.
And was abruptly startled: I almost stopped and parked. The seawall had what seemed like an endless wall of palm trees along the drive, and almost all were strung with white Christmas lights, twisted around the base of the tree, sprinkled in its rustling top fronds. The dissonance with a “proper” Christmas tree stunned me, and I realized that somehow, I thought you “should” only be putting lights on evergreen trees, spruce or fir or pine, preferably standing sturdy in the snow. Check your iconic Christmas cards!!! Those trees catalyzed a long and fascinating set of reflections on both my own and others experiences of this “season”: I learned to study our “expectations”.
So I have struggled to refine my sense of how I hope to experience this season, how I might not be held hostage by both my personal “learned” expectations and the pull I feel to meet the “expectations” of others. What is joy, really, and how does it manifest in my life, in my relationships, in the choices I make when I fretfully try to figure out Christmas gifts for those I care about, and when I confront that even greater challenge, selecting gifts for my grandchildren, where “care about” always seems like an understatement. The churn of my expectations and the experience of the expectations of others can be overwhelming, and these disabling dimensions of the holidays become something I may try to ignore, but will often fail. I do not believe my experience is unique.
UNICEF, my top charity for donations, has saved me, in a variety of ways. When I see the children that UNICEF works to serve, I know that their experiences of the “season” are not embedded in defined expectations. Many hope only for survival, or the survival of a parent or sibling. Looking at photos of these children, the seasonal songs about peace and joy and merry laughter…these can make me feel slightly unsettled. I don’t want to silence them; I want to know what we do about all the people for whom they do not “apply”. This season carries a secret binding where our fixation on our personal expectations and our ceremonial “giving to those in need” can be an annual ritual designed to address and solve nothing.
These UNICEF kids become my alternate site for my expectations, where I can purchase gifts, cards, or simply make donations, find some release of my discomfort. The discomfort my decisions creates in others assures me that we may have indeed locked into a pattern that can be hard to set free. The UNICEF kids also “force” me to admit to myself how much the “expectations” of the season disappoint many children here in the US. The many “have nots” in our society share with us in the same inner dialog of how it “should” be. No one can easily escape the focus on expectations.
While the food banks and “Toys for Tots” may make us temporarily feel “better”, they can also be a self-deception we use to avoid addressing the structures we have created to harm these children, to ensure that they will continue to be “have nots”. And perhaps more painfully, I reflectively ask the obvious question: what does it feel like to live, as a child, in this culture, learn all the rules of all the expectations, and then recognize that none apply to you, none bring you the “good tidings”.
I suppose, here in the beckoning lights of “almost Christmas” I harbor the desire and commitment to apply a careful monitor to my expectations of myself and others, and theirs of me. Merriam-Webster has announced that “authenticity” is their word of the year for 2023. I think I am going to think about that long and hard.
“We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.”
- May Sarton -
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