Christmas, Rohatsu, The Solstice and Me

Take a good look around and if you’re looking down, put a little love in your heart.

I hope when you decide, kindness will be your guide, put a little love in your heart.

Put a Little Love in Your Heart

I’ll just say it up-front: I love Christmas. I enjoy this time of year for its celebration of joy and good cheer. But my history with this holiday has been a complicated one. For me – even as a kid – Christmas was about more than the presents and Santa. The Christmas season felt like a special, magical time of year. Like many of us, though, I’ve also struggled to find the joy in the season. At times in my life, the winter holidays felt too full of pressure and obligations. The entire time of year felt devoid of any real substance. There was a year or two in my twenties when I wanted to “opt out” of Christmas entirely. I didn’t care who I disappointed, I didn’t see the point of it at all anymore and preferred to just boycott the entire thing. My journey back to loving this time of year took me through Zen retreats and drum circles and back to my childhood celebrations of Christmas. My view of Christmas is changed now, shaped and clarified by my life and experiences. I have my own spin on the holiday, one that helps me simply enjoy the season and let go of the pressures that don’t serve me.

Photo from Canva

Let’s face it, the holidays are a difficult time for many reasons. There are pressures and expectations that many of us feel at this time of year; pressures that suck the joy from us and make the season feel like a farce. Pre-COVID, the winter holidays in particular would often drop us all at home together with terrible weather outside, forcing us to pretend to enjoy the company of family members we’ve never seen eye-to-eye with even in the best of times. But, I think above all, the holidays come with certain explicit and implicit expectations of how things “should” be and how we “should” feel. I have found that being honest about those expectations and then making conscious choices about which expectations you will care about and which you will let go of is key to making the holiday season one that you will enjoy. It’s also important to recognize that – in some ways – there will always be pain in the holidays and that “bittersweet-ness” is simply a part of this time of year.

After I graduated college and left home, I didn’t feel like I had much use for Christmas anymore. In my early twenties especially, I pushed against what I saw as the materialism of the holiday. I had a good job with good money and didn’t see the point in either getting or giving gifts to the other adults in my family. One year I actually told my family that I was opting out of Christmas entirely. I wasn’t getting any gifts for anyone and didn’t expect any to come to me. I had reached Full “Ebony” Scrooge and was ready to Bah, Humbug the entire Christmas season.

During that time in my life, I was a very active student and practitioner of Sōtō Zen Buddhism. I attended shorter, one to three day retreats every month and then in 2009, I attended my first fully-residential week-long retreat at the Atlanta Sōtō Zen Center. I attended the eight day Rohatsu retreat and lived the monastic life for a week: meditating through the day, assisting with the cooking and cleaning of the zen center and participating in services throughout the week. Rohatsu is a Japanese word that means “the eighth day of the last month of the year.” The Rohatsu retreat usually takes place around the first week in December and celebrates the Buddha’s enlightenment. As the story goes, The Buddha sat under the Bodhi Tree and resolved not to rise until he achieved true awakening. On the eighth day, after facing his inner demons in the form of the devil-like Mara, he looked up to see the morning see the morning star and achieved enlightenment. During the Rohatsu retreats I’ve attended, it is customary to sit in meditation all night on the last night of the retreat and then to join in a community practice early in the morning, commemorating the Buddha’s awakening when he saw that first star of morning. During my first Rohatsu retreat in Atlanta, I sat in meditation outside all night in the cold Georgia winter, wrapped in a borrowed sleeping bag that ended up sprinkled with frost. At dawn, after that last night of the retreat, I looked up into the clear winter sky and could see the morning star shining bright. After services and the close of the retreat, a group of us retreatants went for a early morning walk to Starbucks (of all places) to enjoy hot tea and coffee together after our week in meditation and silence. That Rohatsu experience and the several I have had in the years later helped me find a sense of community and fellowship that I had somehow lost over the years. In my experience, Rohatsu retreats always ended with kindness and good cheer. After a week of intense meditation, the break of the Rohatsu retreat is a celebration and an opportunity for the community to come together. Perhaps because of this and simply because Rohatsu happens in early December, I found that the retreats changed the way I felt about Christmas. Slowly but surely, my Scrooge-like approach began to crack. In a later Zen group, we would make tissue paper flowers throughout the Rohatsu retreat and celebrate the last day by decorating the zendo in colorful paper flowers. I found myself taking home a flower or two and putting them on my mantle, slowly returning to decorating my house for the season. Unexpectedly, my experience with this intense Zen Buddhist retreat helped me reconnect with the simple joys of the season. The metaphor of a light in the sky after a long, dark December night resonates with us on a primal level. It is a reminder of hope and light returning to the world. Ultimately, it is the message of the Solstice.

Like most African Americans, I was raised Christian. Growing up, our Christmas celebrations were a mixture of secular and religious. These days, Christmas is more of a solstice celebration for me. The days are short in the winter and the nights are long. Where I’m from – in the northern hemisphere – the Winter Solstice is always a few days before the Christmas holiday. We reach the darkest time of the year and then, without fail, the days get longer. As the Solstice song reminds us: “Light is returning, even though this is the darkest hour, no one can hold back the dawn.” The stories of the Three Wise Men and The Buddha seeing a bright star shining through the dark sky are both tales of hope. They remind us that nothing, not even the darkness, lasts forever and the light will return one day. That is what Christmas is all about for me: a celebration of light and a reminder of hope.

As an adult now and especially as a mom, I’ve come to see that it’s up to me to bring joy and light into this season. Remembering the celestial cycle is a great inspiration. Now that the Solstice has passed, the days are getting longer. The light is returning even though it’s almost impossible to tell these days. It’s up to me, then, to share the light and joy of hope of the season with my family and especially with my kids. They are learning from me each moment, whether I’m actively teaching them or not. They look to me as an example – their first role model. And so, I don’t “opt out” any more, I’ve sent my inner Ebenezer Scrooge away. Through the years, I have found my own unique flavor of joy in this season and I’m sharing that flavor with them. During this time of year, I do what I can to bring light and good cheer into our home. As a little tribe of four we decorate, we sing holiday songs and – above all – we share quality time together.

What are you celebrating during this season?

Can you find a way to remember light and hope, even in these dark difficult days?

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