‘I wear the chain I forged in life,’ replied the Ghost. ‘I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?’
—Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
I was so happy to see Maggie, my former student, on a trip back home. In class, way back in the day, Maggie was a bright and funny over-achiever, a perfectionist, and a wonderful writer. I lost track of her after we moved. Then, when I finally figured out FaceBook, twelve years after everyone else had embraced it, Maggie found me and sent a friend request.
It’s been a delight to watch her soar, career-wise, and to see her find a mate and establish a family of her own, too. Now here she was, looking a little tired and a little frazzled.
This is what she told me:
I have to make twenty four cupcakes, from scratch, for my daughter Annie’s first grade class tomorrow. Jillie’s dance recital is Thursday night, and I still have to sew fifty-seven sequins onto her leotard. I’m in charge of the Christmas party at work, and I’m organizing a collection for some students who are dead broke this Christmas season. They’re debating whether they should stay in college or give their kids a real Christmas; we decided to take care of the Christmas part for them. There are kids’ concerts coming up and we’re both singing in the cantata at church and I made my own Christmas cards this year and Joe’s parents and sister are coming to stay with us. I have to plan the dinner and shop for the groceries and clean the house and hand craft gifts for forty seven of my closest friends…
What I did was hug her and wish her a wonderful, wonderful holiday season.
What I wanted to do was shake her and say, NO, you DON’T ‘have to’!
But, having once been a victim of “The World’s Most Essential Mommy” syndrome myself, I knew it wouldn’t do any good. Maggie, right now, wouldn’t hear me.
As I said, Maggie is smart. She’ll figure it out; she’ll come to see that running herself ragged from September until January 2nd is not the best way to celebrate the holidays. It’s not even a route to making sweet children magically happy.
Until then, though, Maggie will wear the chains she’s forged herself–chains of super-mom selflessness and exhaustion. She’ll throw herself into bed on Christmas morning at 4 AM, having filled the stockings and etched an authentic looking note from Santa, thanking Jillie and Annie for the milk and cookies, having arranged the presents in person-centered piles and insured that everyone’s goodies were equal in cost and intent, having whipped up the breakfast casserole and wrestled the 16-pound roast, somehow, into her over-stuffed refrigerator. She’ll look at her blissfully snoring husband Joe, and she’ll feel a rising tide of resentment.
“Merry freakin’ Christmas,” she’ll think bitterly. “And once again, I did most of it myself.”
And, with a self-righteous little ping of satisfaction, she’ll drag those onerous chains up from the floor, wrap them around her tired self, and sleep until 5:15, when Jillie and Annie erupt to drag her and Joe out of bed.
Oh, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
I know a wonderful wife and mom who stops at her favorite pizzeria every Christmas Eve and buys two enormous unbaked pies. On Christmas evening, after the visiting is done and the explosion of wrapping paper has settled, she cranks the oven up high and throws the pizzas in. That’s their Christmas dinner; the kids look forward to it every year, and if she whipped up a full meal of roast and mashed potatoes and gravy, with cheesecake and handcrafted chocolates, they would groan and ask where the pizza was.
What a smart mama. She says she wants to be awake and rested at the end of Christmas day, so they can clear the table and get the board games out and enjoy each other’s company.
Never once have the Essential Mommy police shown up to ding her for offering pizza instead of a seven course meal on Christmas night.
We chain ourselves with imagined obligations.
There are other holiday ways we chain ourselves, too—like Scrooge and Marley, we might have wrapped ourselves relentlessly in coils of nastiness, hoping the worst for our enemies, withholding love and joy from those we feel have wronged us. Maybe we are stingy with the tip for the paper carrier or the hair dresser; maybe we cut someone off our Christmas card list because we didn’t like an offhand remark they made last year. Fifteen years of friendship fries in the fires of resentment, and out pops a heavy metal link. It attaches itself to the growing chain we’re wearing around our waists.
When others party merrily, we watch bitterly. “Sure. Easy for you,” we think.
Easy for US, too–if only our chains weren’t quite so heavy.
Chains of worry and resentment and frustration. We wait for a shining savior-person to come and, wielding gleaming metal cutters, cut away those heavy coils from our weary persons.
But, really, all we have to do is let them go ourselves.
Thank goodness Christmas brings other chains, too.
There are the paper chains crafted by childish hands, clumsily stapled or glued together, dangling, maybe, from one end of the curtain rod in the living room. Each day, the kids take turns ripping off a link. Soon, the littlest one has to stand on a chair to reach the bottom-most link.
When the links are gone, Christmas will be here.
For each link they tear away, those children do a secret nice thing for someone–clean up a mess, or bite off a nasty retort. Or say a little prayer in the silence.
They tear away the paper chain, but they’re creating another, more wonderful kind of linkage.
There are chains of connection–the long-awaited Christmas letter, the every Christmas evening phone call, the reunion that always happens on New Year’s Eve. We forge these chains, too–the joyful maintenance of communication, of friendship, of caring.
We join hands with those odd people sitting next to us at church, and we are surprised by the warmth of their grasps. We dish up the meal at the food kitchen and recognize ourselves in those we serve.
We launder the still-snuggly winter coat, mend its tears, replace its buttons, take it down to the homeless shelter, and hand it over to a retired teacher who volunteers there. She will get it to a person who needs it, a person who doesn’t need to see me or know where that coat originated. But, strangers to each other, we will still be part of a chain.
Those chains, too, are chains we forge in life.
Oh, Maggie. I want to send her a gift card for a massage, bidding her to take the afternoon off. I want to call her husband Joe and tell him to make the girl slow down. I want to sit her down and spill all the wonderful wisdom I’ve gathered, over a somewhat self-satisfied life, into her already full lap.
But she’s no fool, our Maggie, and she will come to a day when she realizes that being fully present is the very best present, that having a perfectly peaked meringue never made the difference in a holiday celebration, that treating herself with all the kindness and energy she treats others is a gift to everyone, not just to herself.
She wears the chains of obligation, Maggie does, but she also wears the chains of joy. And deep down, under the thrum and bustle of deep-felt oh-I-have-to’s, she knows (we ALL know) which chains are made to last.