I’m not lifting any veil by saying that the holiday season is the most stressful time of year for many, with a close second being tax day. It’s also the time of year that best distills the inequities in life and society. We are bombarded by displays of great wealth, abundance, and overflowing joy in the media, anywhere in public. Retail establishments are festooned with shiny, glittery stuff to remind us how happy and joyful we are. Sparkly holiday ornamentation is sure to guide us into a fantasy world where all is good and kind and sweet.
But for some, these displays only serve to highlight struggles a person may have in their own life—practical, physical, and emotional challenges. It is during the holidays that a person experiencing grief often feels it more profoundly. It’s hard for anyone not to feel as if everyone else is experiencing the holidays in a grander way than we are, and upon passing the homeless person around the corner from the glowing Macy’s window, a Santa’s gift bag’s worth of guilt.
There are many lists now circulating about how to survive the holidays. To one such list posted on Facebook by a reputable mental health resource a person commented, “Get a giant duvet and hide.”
We aren’t going to provide advice here on how to survive the season. What we think is needed most during the holidays is understanding and compassion. Especially this time of year, we can allow one another slack. It’s the least we can do and it could go a long way to a person who feels like they’re walking in molasses.
Whether you are religious or not, there’s a familiar story from which we can draw guidance. It’s the one about the man and woman who’d married shortly after she announced her pregnancy, though not by him, and who were legally required to embark on a ninety-mile trek by foot and camel, across the desert to register for the Roman census. Their weeks-long journey began before sunup with temperatures in the thirties (Fahrenheit), wicked rain, and wind. Because of her condition, they moved slowly along a narrow road that was hilly and rocky, and with many precipitous drops. Wild bears and lions as well as outlaws threatened their safety. The couple moved through the cold days and nights, guided by light from one bright star. Days into the journey and nearly numb from exhaustion, they stayed warm by moving, and remotely optimistic about finding shelter each night.
Even riding their only camel, the woman’s ankles swelled and feet ached. Her groom ignored the pain in his feet shooting into his back, the cold that stiffened his toes. He remained single-minded about finding a safe and warm shelter for rest. Perhaps her weariness subdued her fears of childbirth; she had to depend upon maternal instinct and a man who was neither the father of the child nor an experienced midwife. She had to trust him, knowing he was a good man because it was all she had. If they were frightened about the dangers of childbirth, in a time when maternal fatality was common, neither expressed it. They pressed on, determined.
As light faded and fatigue invaded their bones, they arrived in Bethlehem. The subtle pre-labor cramping that had begun hours outside the city had become intense and she felt nausea. At the door of the overcrowded inn, they were ready for warmth and rest, only to be turned away. Extra beds were also taken throughout homes in the crowded city. Not a single guest at the inn offered their quarters to the weary pregnant woman.
But the kind innkeeper, seeing a glimpse of goodness in their drawn faces, finally offered shelter in the cave beside the inn where their donkeys and a few sheep were sheltered. The couple settled into a corner, fashioning a straw bed and shortly after, the woman bore a son. And they rested.
Offering humble shelter was the least one could do for this couple and for that they were grateful.