Families, Holidays, and Chaos

A few years ago I stumbled across Dar William’s humorous and touching holiday song, “The Christians and the Pagans”. It was a good natured glimpse into the utter chaos experienced by a  family of very dissimilar individuals, all trying to navigate their way through the minefield of a Christmas dinner without triggering nuclear meltdown.

I found it so delightful and thought-provoking that I forwarded the YouTube video link to most of my contacts. A few of them had encountered the song previously, but were glad to enjoy it again.  To others, as it had been to me, it was a revelation: a couple of laugh-out-loud verses woven into an authentic description of the bedlam relatives endure as they try to practice tolerance and caring for the sake of family at the holidays.

But, to my dismay, a couple of my contacts found the song very offensive. To say that I was bewildered at their reaction is an understatement.  This was a song about tolerance—about the triumph of love over personal differences—about the curiosity of children, as well as their inability to lie for the sake of tact (“The Emperor has no clothes!”)—about finding common ground in the midst of seeming contradictions.

Eventually it became clear to me that, for those who found the song distasteful, their rejection of it lay in the very fact that the song was, indeed, about tolerance: about a Christian family struggling to accept and love their non-Christian and unconventional relatives (it is implied, though never outright stated in the lyrics, that the young niece is in a lesbian partnership) at Christmastime. To some of my very-Christian acquaintances, this concept—that Christians would willingly welcome the company of their non-Christian relatives at Christmas—was anathema.

It is a mindset that I cannot even begin to comprehend. I glory in the traditions of other cultures, so many of which celebrate a religious or secular holiday near the winter solstice.  Soyaluna, Diwali, Christmas, Solstice, The Return of the Wandering Goddess…to me, they are all beautiful traditions, evocative of the universality of the human spirit reaching out to the Divine.  To reject loved ones because they have chosen a different faith (or even no faith at all) is, to my way of thinking, so far from the genuine practice of Christianity, as I understand it, that it boggles the mind.

I was simply stunned to learn that some of my Christian acquaintances thought that their non-Christian counterparts would be encouraged to “find Jesus” if they were cast out and treated as lepers; that they believed children should be shielded from the spiritual differences of those they encounter, instead of simply receiving an explanation as to why the family believes other faiths to be in error. I could not comprehend their feeling that families should not at least try to join together in love and caring at the holidays, no matter what their dissimilarities.

It’s always seemed to me that the surest way to draw others into one’s own belief system is to demonstrate, by the very life one lives, that it is a faith worth emulating. How, I was now forced to ask, could shunning loved ones, subjecting them to rejection and disgust and dislike—how could that in any way inspire them to accept the faith of those who cast them out?  Wouldn’t such behavior just convince them that their own spiritual path was the more noble choice?

In a question between my own belief system of that of others, I will always choose the path of learning; never relying on rumor or medieval bad press or intentional misinformation, but seeking to know the genuine principles surrounding a belief system (or even a rejection of all faith) to find the thread of commonality woven into all that is the human spirit.

But, no matter what they do or do not believe, all those who demonstrate love, acceptance, kindness, courtesy and tolerance will always be welcomed to a seat at my holiday table.

Warming the Syrup

When I was in my early 20s, I once prepared an excellent Sunday morning brunch for Paul, my boyfriend. I whipped up pancakes — from scratch — cooked his eggs as he liked them, over easy (NOT one of my talents), and–microwaves then being something available only in wealthy household–fried bacon slowly to crispness in a skillet.  I set the table, poured out orange juice and freshly brewed coffee, and called him in to eat.  He sat down to this magnificent repast, and said,

“Didn’t you warm the syrup?!”

 (And let me hasten to insert right here once again that it is absolutely NOT true that I was every arrested for a boyfriend homicide.)

Warming the pancake syrup was not something that was ever done in our family. It simply hadn’t occurred to me to do so. But he had apparently never been served room-temperature syrup (which sort of begs the question, had the man never been out to eat at a pancake house?  But I digress.  That’s a topic for another blog post.)

That incident has always stood out for me as a perfect example of the way that our personal expectations overlay and often interfere with our relationships – at home, at work, among our friends and family. Unless we recognize and question our own expectations, and determine if they are reasonable, they can create enormous damage, resulting in misunderstandings, wounded feelings, resentment…or the occasional near-homicide.

In another example of how the dissimilarity of expectations destroys relationships, I was stung once by a friend (a now-former friend, let me hasten to add!) who had recently lost her spouse.  Knowing that she was both living alone and dealing with some household repairs by herself for the first time in her life,  I had innocently offered her my company and assistance, if needed.  Her response was to snarl at me, “You always think that everyone will feel the way you feel.  Some of us are different!  We don’t need somebody around at every turn.”

I did my best not to feel offended; after all, in one respect she was correct. I could only imagine another’s mindset by considering the way in which I might feel in the same situation.  Looking more closely at the circumstances, though, I realized that my expectation had been that she would feel the need for company and assistance and appreciate an offer of help; her expectation was that she be left in peace to get on with a difficult adjustment to her new situation. Even without her ungracious response, the divide between our personal expectations left an impassable gulf in our relationship. I recalled that she had never offered me any form of emotional support or assistance when I was going through difficult times, expecting me to just deal with problems on my own; friendship, to her, was a leisure-time activity.  Our expectations of what comprised a friendship were worlds apart.  I withdrew from the relationship, and never heard from her again.

I suspect these differences in expectations are what drive a wedge into many a marriage. In its most absurd manifestation, we anticipate that our significant other will “just know” what we need or want, as though love imbued one with some special form of telepathy.  The insanity of this notion doesn’t even occur to most couples, but it is probably responsible for a lot of income for marriage counselors and divorce lawyers.

It sometimes takes quite a bit of self-examination to reach the conclusion, too, that our expectations of another are unreasonable, and based more on our own neediness than on a realistic interaction between two adult human beings.

After the unwarmed syrup incident, I never prepared brunch for Paul again, and he didn’t last much longer as a boyfriend, either. But I spent years – decades – always carefully warming the syrup for my pancakes, French toast, and waffles.  I had taken to heart his expectation of my cooking, and made it my own – that was, until just a few weeks ago.  I was making waffles but forgot to set the syrup pitcher in the microwave.  The waffles were already steaming with melted butter on my plate and my coffee was poured and ready to be drunk when I realized my error.  So I shrugged and poured the room temperature syrup onto my waffles.

And found, after all these years,that I preferred my syrup that way.

I had at last freed myself of another’s ridiculous expectation.