The Advent and Christmas seasons are a perfectionist’s nightmare. At no time of year do the “shoulds,” “oughts,” and “pinterests” blare more loudly in our minds than December. As soon as you get the old holiday ornaments out of storage, the shiny new ones gleam and scream from the store shelves: Buy me! You need me to have the perfect home!
Maybe gift-giving and decorating aren’t your kryptonite–maybe it’s baking and knitting (Melissa Naasko, I’m looking at you! Melissa is a friend whose mad baking AND knitting skillz are, literally, award winning. Her cookbook, incidentally, helps keep he logistics of fasting times simple and family friendly–any perfectionist can appreciate that!)
On top of all this, in Orthodoxy, there’s the temptation to approach all the fasting and forefeasting as simply another layer of “shoulds” to add to the mix.
And after the tidal wave of Christmastime expectations has passed, we perfectionists drown our many unmet shoulds in a nice, aged bottle of what I like to call New Year’s Resolutions.
Sigh… I’m not against making goals or having traditions that make this feast a special one. But sometimes, my mind mistakes the bright, Martha-esque externals for the substance of Christmas. Let’s be clear: that substance of Christmas is Christ, specifically His birth and incarnation. His entrance into this world of brokenness. The festivities–the cookies, the lights, the beauty–of this season are shadows of the Light of the world.
Like many of you reading this, I describe myself as a recovering perfectionist. But it’s strange: my perfectionism is always tricking me by shifting and adopting new forms. It used to be I would actually do everything perfectionism prompted me to do–and do it “perfectly”–even if I burned out in the process. Now I just skip right to the burn out: I don’t even bother doing half the things my perfectionism demon informs me I should be doing, I simply mope about my general sense of inadequacy.
Case in point: I haven’t really gotten Christmas presents for people this year. I wanted to–usually, I find ways to make most of them–but any time I tried thinking of what to make, it didn’t seem good enough. Oh, and I also haven’t baked anything Christmasy–or made plans to bake anything Christmasy yet–for the same reason. We did manage to get some decorations up, but we have yet to do anything with the tree.
In one sense, none of this really matters, right? As I just clarified, all these cosmetic side dishes of the season, like cookies and trees, are not the substance of Christmas. In fact, maybe less is more–maybe it’s better to pare down the externals so we can focus on what’s truly important.
I get that. But, for me, the minimalism toward Christmas festivity sometimes translates to a minimalism toward Christ Himself. I wish the reason I kept things simple were because I just love Christ so much–I’m sure Christ wishes that for me, too. Anyway, we’re working on it–souls are needlessly complicated sometimes.
Back to the sweets, though: the thing is, it actually makes me rather sad I’ve been so despondent about Christmas this year. Honestly, I actually enjoy giving (and making) presents. I also really like baking–I find an immense amount of symbolism in every rising of Christmas bread dough. I don’t want to sound too saccharine (or punny, for that matter), but the smell of poppy seed and candied orange peel and spices wafting through our apartment really does remind me that this world has been blessed by the incarnate Son of God.
When it comes to making holidays holy days–time set apart from the usual flow of time–we all have our knacks and callings. And I’m talking about the superfluous things–the things we do above and beyond going to and participating in the life of the Church. For example, I bake and knit. Maybe you paint or write poems or make snow angels. All these things involve creating–bringing something new to the table of time and life.
Deep down, I think these creative (read: life-giving) activities border on something sacred: they summon a certain generosity of spirit within us. Of course we don’t need to do any of these things, God is certainly not forcing us or even asking us to decorate a Christmas tree or bake some cookies in the name of His Son. But we do them anyway.
And therein we mimic the Father’s gift to us: He didn’t have to send His son into this world–He sent Him anyway, for the sheer abundant love and pleasure of it all. He just got caught up in His love for mankind. Christmas is, as Dickens once wrote, “a time, of all others, […] when abundance rejoices.”
But if we are not careful, the abundance can turn sour rather quickly. Especially when we are bombarded by an artificial yuletide “cheer” as soon as October, depending on the retailer. We begin to forget the Source of all this abundance. Even if we are fasting and trying to live out the waiting-ness of Advent, it’s easy to turn into an overstimulated mess by the time Christmas actually rolls around.
I guess that’s a bit of what happened to me this year. The reason I’ve put baking and gifts off is because I simply got exhausted by everything too quickly–and I wasn’t even doing much. It’s not like I’m a shopaholic or anything–if anything, I’m a shopaphobic. Frankly, just being in this culture exhausts me sometimes, Christmas more than ever. I call it perfectionism fatigue, which is kind of like decision fatigue but with way more pressure.
Which brings me back to where I started in the first place: perfectionism.
I’ve always found it interesting that the Church Fathers don’t seem to have a word for perfectionism. “Maybe perfectionism just wasn’t around back then,” Nicole thinks to herself, adeptly sweeping her tendencies under the therefore-it’s-probably-okay rug. “Or maybe,” responds the wise, internalized voice of my spiritual father “perfectionism is just a more sophisticated-sounding word for pride. And covetousness, and a little bit of despondency.”
It’s almost fashionable to say you’re a perfectionist–not so much to say you’re prideful. But we all are. And perfectionism is a special–not to mention painful–kind of pride, it’s the pride that sets not only self-importance but the entire world on your shoulders and says “there, that’s your problem. All of it.” And then we spend our whole lives scrambling to live by the seat of our pants so maybe we can fix what’s not ours to fix–whether it’s making perfectly shaped Christmas cookies or stressing out about the refugees in Aleppo.
In perfectionism, we encounter the world as a series of problems only we can solve, rather than a place of mystery whose God is the Lord. In perfectionism, we prize pragmatic or utilitarian action over communion and engagement–mostly because communion doesn’t “solve” any “problems.” Also, because communion is messy and unpredictable and vulnerable, and perfectionism gravitates towards neat lines.
The Church teaches us the value of carving out distinct times and spaces and ways to honor and encounter sacramental mystery in our lives. We cannot “go big or go home” with sacred mystery–we encounter the mystery not in an all or nothing way, but in an unfolding, a one-day-at-a-time process. AKA a relationship.
And so, to begin to encounter mystery–whether it is God, our neighbor, the refugee crisis, or Christmas itself–we have to surrender the all-or-nothing thinking of perfectionism (easier said than done, I know, but bear with me for a second). We have to (no, we GET to) go back and start small. REALLY small. Christ came as a BABY, so it’s okay to take baby steps toward Christmas. It’s okay to start somewhere with Christmas, even if we started late or can’t live up to what we think we need to live up to.
I’m trying to remember this as Christmas looms near. I feel like in some ways, I’ve squandered the last few weeks of Advent and haven’t had my head in the game. Maybe you feel that way too. Let’s remember, though, that it’s never to late to turn to Christ.
Putting this into practice, I’ve decided it’s never too late to stop being a Scrooge. My baby step forward is that I have settled on two or three (small, manageable, discrete) things I want to do between now and the Feast of Theophany (6 January, which liturgically marks the end of the festal Nativity season).* I want to think about these small things not as items to do, but as offerings–things I can give in a spirit of freedom and love to God, those around me, and myself.
They are superfluous but also meaningful to me for the reasons I described above. They remind me of mystery and the incarnational goodness of generous love.
Tomorrow, I’ll talk about one of those things. Spoiler: it involves sweet things. Also, lots of waiting.
*= the actual leavetaking of the Nativity is December 31 in many jurisdictions, but the fast-free period that follows the Nativity lasts until just before Theophany.