On Friday I had an appointment with an Acupuncturist whose office is up near Woodstock, and it's something of a journey to get there. I started out with a big surprise: the roads were completely empty. I drove all the way to Port Ewen, the seat of our Town government - about 8 miles away - without encountering a single other vehicle. I have never seen the roads so deserted. I couldn't imagine where everyone had gone. I was expecting a fair amount of holiday shopping traffic and there was nothing. "What?" I thought. "Has everyone suddenly developed some sense?"
I should have known.
Normally I take a back road around Kingston to avoid the traffic congestion of the shopping area, but Friday I decided I'd go the shorter way through the city, since the roads were so lightly traveled. Big mistake. When I got near the Hudson Valley Mall and all the stores around it, I discovered where all the people were who are normally on the highways had gone. Route 9-W past the mall was practically a parking lot 2 miles long. Jammed with cars. Horns blowing. People shouting. Nothing moving. By the time I got through that mess I was very late for my appointment, but of course everyone understood. Everyone but me knew what would be going on in Kingston on the Friday before Christmas.
This happens to me every few years, and it serves as a very useful reminder to me of just how differently we observe this whole season than almost everyone else. We celebrate what are now called "The Holidays" by slowing down instead of speeding up. We have less traveling outside the monastery than at other times. We have a rich liturgical celebration of Advent which focuses on the longing of the human race for God. "O Come" we sing, over and over. "O Come, O Come Emmanuel". "O King of Nations, Come" "Come, O Lord in Peace."
In the week before Christmas we have a 3-day retreat. The guesthouse is shut. The whole place is silent. The liturgical schedule is pared down. We have a vast quiet with snow and the river to keep us company. We try to make it possible to be really refreshed and ready for the celebration of Christmas. One of our friends who was rector of one of the parishes in Kingston said that one of the delights of the season for her was to come down here during the busiest shopping days of the year and see the sign on the door of our Gift Shop: "Closed for Retreat".
A great cultural festival goes on in this country from Thanksgiving until December 25. It's a winter festival and it is found in nearly every culture and religion in the Northern Hemisphere. Its hallmarks are good cheer and good consumption. Parties. Gifts. So much celebrating and so much busy-ness that everyone is worn out. It used to be called "Christmas". It's now widely referred to as "The Holidays". I'm not one of those people who lament the detachment of the American cultural feast from the vestiges of the Christian religion. I think, in fact, it's quite useful to be clear that two different things are going on here.
Both things are good. At Holy Cross we aren't a group who are opposed to celebration. We are rather opposed to excess and we do insist that what we do always make room for quiet and for the inward journey, but we also like partying. We are going to celebrate Christmas in grand style and there will be a lot of people here to celebrate with us. We will decorate splendidly. We'll have a huge tree which we will decorate on Christmas Eve (are we the last people in the United States who don't put their tree up until Christmas Eve?) We will have a Midnight Mass that is solemn and stately and will have wonderful singing and preaching and rejoicing. We'll have a good reception afterwards and it will be ridiculously late when we get to bed. Edward, our chef, has been thinking for weeks about how he can make our Christmas dinner more splendid that it was last year. He will probably succeed, and our waistlines will show it. Again, lots of people will be here to share this with us, and will be here for a week. Our guesthouse will be open continuously now until January 1, and a good large supply of people will come and go all during the next 10 days. At the end of it we will be exhausted with celebrating and being hospitable. We'll be ready for a few days off, which we will proceed to have after New Year's Day.
There will be gifts, too. Many friends remember us at this time, and for that we are very grateful. And our own gift giving is going to be pretty special, too. Everyone in our community will have a certain amount of money available, and each of us gets to decide who - or what cause - they would like to give it to. At a community gathering on Christmas Day we will have a time to relax with each other. We will open the presents that people have sent. Then - the most important part - we will share with each other where each of our personal gifts will be going and why these people and ministries we have chosen to support are important to us. We are really looking forward to it.
So all in all I'm pretty satisfied to be out of step with most people at this time of the year. I really love the way we choose to celebrate Advent and Christmas. I'm glad not to be captive to The Holidays. I like keeping our focus and our care for the season. I think we celebrate well, and I don't feel in the least deprived.
Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays!