Some people get depressed at Christmastime. My father-in-law, Bill Reel, was one such guy. He never could get into the spirit of the season. Couldn’t wait for January to come. “Christmas music is supposed to cheer us up, but it makes me sad,” he once wrote.
Mr. Reel had a column in a New York City newspaper for thirty-plus years. In a very direct way, I owe whatever success I’ve had as a writer to him. He encouraged me to set pen to paper—set me off on this path. And he always gave good advice.
“Omit needless words.” He borrowed that from E.B. White.
“One day at a time.” He borrowed that from Bill W.
“Never worry about money. Enjoy your family. The money will take care of itself.” I’m pretty sure that was original to him. Such good advice. I wish I was better at taking it.
Sadly, my father-in-law passed away a few years back. I still miss him terribly. Think about him all the time. I try my best to write as well—and as honestly—as he did. In the spirit of honesty, I have to say I’m having a hard time feeling jolly this Christmas. I’ve got a bad case of the Bah Humbugs.
I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the constant stream of bad news. The tragedies. The protests. The violence. Maybe it’s the political bickering and fevered one-upmanship I see on my social media feeds. How many old friendships have been fractured by Facebook? How many happy families have turned sour thanks to Twitter? What a waste. So unnecessary.
But that couldn’t possibly be the source of my seasonal slump. Partisanship goes on all year long. It must be something else.
“Christmas is just a day like any other day,” says my friend George. “What’s to get so excited about?”
Well, I used to get plenty excited about it. I used to float through December like a seagull on an ocean breeze. It was an Advent updraft. As a teenager, I’d even get pumped up for Midnight Mass, which was often the only time we’d go to church all year.
Why then, this year, do I feel December 25th will come and go, just a day like any other day?
Whatever’s causing my holiday heartsick, I find myself looking deeper into the spiritual side of the season. I always heard the message to look past the commercialism of Christmas, but I don’t think I ever really listened. For maybe the first time, I don’t care if I receive a gift this year. I already have everything that matters anyway. No trinket or toy could come close to giving me the joy that I get from my family.
I hear folks say that Advent is a season of waiting. Maybe that’s my problem—I’ve grown so spoiled I don’t want to wait anymore. I get everything on demand. I can get an electric pineapple peeler shipped directly to my house—overnight. I have the world at my fingertips. Why should I have to wait?
It could be, too, that the unrelenting pressure of keeping my young family fed, clothed, and educated is starting to get to me. I confess that I’ve been paying a little more attention to the price of things this year than I have in years past. But whatever problems old Scrooge Hennessey has, the Holy Family surely had it worse. Homeless. Pregnant. Confused. Herod on their trail. They got through the First Noel on faith alone. Maybe I can too.
Here’s what I’m going to do. Instead of waiting for the spirit of the season to turn my lump of coal into a gingerbread cookie, I’m going to take the initiative. I’m going to turn off the Internet. I’m going to put on a Bing Crosby song. And I’m going to light the Advent wreath. Then I’m going to gather the kids and read them the Nativity story.
That oughta put some peppermint in my step. That oughta get me in the mood for mistletoe. Then, when I’m properly cheerful, I’ll offer up a prayer of gratitude for my dear departed father-in-law, who never let me down even when he was feeling down.
Merry Christmas to you and yours, from me and mine. See you at Midnight Mass.
By Matthew Hennessey
Matthew Hennessey and his family are parishioners of St. Aloysius in New Canaan.