Fixing Christmas

Homeless Neighbors at Christmas in the ParkChristmas leaves me feeling like shit. It has for at least a couple of decades. I’m not talking about Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. I’m talking about the month or so that follows Christmas. It’s easy to point to January as a long, cold month devoid of major holiday festivities, and for many years, I blamed my post-Christmas blues on winter. A lot of people do. But that’s not it. Short days and cold temperatures don’t have much to do with it, really. My January dreariness is because I’ve been doing Christmas wrong.


I’ve had this strange obsession with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for years, and I’ve seen all the dozen or so movie versions – going back to the very beginning of black and white talking pictures – multiple times. My very favorite is Bill Murray’s 1988 modern day adaptation titled, Scrooged. Murray plays Frank Cross, a rich and ruthless television executive who receives visits from the spirits of Christmas and has an awakening about changing his mission in life away from greed and selfishness to helping his fellow man. After hijacking a live Christmas Eve production of A Christmas Carol, Cross weeps to a live TV audience about the miracle he has experienced on Christmas. He says through exhausted tears, “It’s great. It’s a good feeling. It’s really better than I’ve felt in a long time.”


I’ve watched Bill Murray’s speech at the end of that movie probably fifty times, and it has moved me to tears more than once. I get it. Christmas isn’t supposed to be about gluttonous consumption and expanded credit card debt, and complaining about the over-commercialism of Christmas is nothing new. It’s why at least once a decade someone makes a new version of A Christmas Carol. And yet, we all continue to try to shove ten pounds of festivity in a five pound Christmas bag leaving us empty and fat and tired and wholeheartedly unfulfilled. If It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year as the song suggests, why do we feel so bad when it’s over? Is it just because it’s over, or is it because we’ve been doing it wrong year after year?


For the second year in a row, I found something to cram in my five pound Christmas bag that would make Charles Dickens and Bill Murray proud. Last year, my wife dragged me to an event on Christmas Day called Christmas in the Park. Hundreds of volunteers from around Denver gave food, clothing and other essentials to our homeless neighbors in Civic Center Park downtown. I was assigned to the backpack station. As I watched desperate people search frantically for the backpack that would hold all of their possession for the months to come, I was moved in a way I did not anticipate. They weren’t choosing a backpack based on fashion or color. They were choosing a tool for survival. I was taking a break between looking through my stocking and opening the rest of my presents. My homeless neighbors were fighting to stay alive.


We brought 410 backpacks to the park last year, and we ran out in about ten minutes with the line of people suffering homelessness still stretching for blocks as we folded our tables and headed back to our warm houses and Christmas feasts. It left me with a sick feeling I’ll never forget. I was almost one year sober trying to navigate a booze-filled Christmas season fighting cravings and feeling left out of the party. And then, on Christmas Day, I tried to help and left hundreds of struggling neighbors disappointed. Christmas 2017 left me feeling alone, empty and worthless.


That rotten feeling served as motivation. This year, my wife and I and other members of our church rallied and begged and collected 640 backpacks to bring with us on Christmas morning. Again, they were received with gratitude and served lifesaving purpose. We did not have enough backpacks for all of the homeless victims in the park Christmas morning, but we got one on the back of every person with an urgent need. I braced for the tragic feeling of disappointment from unfulfilled promise, but that feeling never came. Everyone who needed a backpack received one. I felt a sense of relief. I felt like we made progress. But there was no feeling of contentment or satisfaction. I still went home to my warm house and Christmas festivities after handing out backpacks, and the backpack recipients returned to the cold, lonely streets. To feel proud or content would have been to believe a simple backpack had cured the problem of homelessness.


Bill Murray’s Scrooged speech continues with his hope for the feeling he experienced from helping his brothers and sisters in need. “It can happen everyday. You’ve just gotta want that feeling. And if you like it and you want it you’ll get greedy for it. You’ll want it everyday of your life.” I get it. Enough is not enough. We had enough backpacks this year, but it didn’t scratch my itch. Getting involved and staying involved are two very different things, and I’m not a big fan of unfinished business. What exactly does this mean for me? I’m not sure yet. I haven’t figured it out. But I’m greedy for the feeling of progress made.


I hesitated to write about Christmas in the Park for fear it would sound like bragging about doing a good deed. Attaboys and accolades are simply not part of my motivation. I am writing about this experience because I think it just might be the tip of the post-Christmas-misery iceberg. Do we feel bad when Christmas is over because it is over and January is upon us, or do we feel bad because the ten pounds we shoved in the five pound Christmas bag was frivolous and unsatisfying? I don’t know a single person who doesn’t struggle to prevent the commercial side of Christmas from becoming overwhelming. Why do you think there are constant reminders about the true meaning of Christmas? Why do you think there are so many versions of A Christmas Carol?


But what if we aren’t just struggling to balance? What if we are going 100 miles an hour in the wrong direction? What if rather than carving out a few hours for a service project during the holiday season, we dedicate the entire holiday season to service? What then? How would we feel when Christmas was over? Would Christmas ever really end?


A lot is made within the recovery community about the need for a sober alcoholic to fill the void left behind when the drinker gives up the drink. I’m increasingly convinced drinking doesn’t create a void. Rather, alcohol is just a temporary placeholder for a void that exists in many of us with or without addiction. And the way we do Christmas just makes it worse. At least as drinkers, we party our way through December and lack the clarity of vision to see what we are doing to our own depleted souls.


This was my second consecutive sober Christmas. I felt better this year – really better than I’ve felt about Christmas in a long time. But it’s not enough. A few hours offering to help isn’t satisfying. I’m greedy for the feeling I get from involvement just like I used to drink greedily with a thirst that would never be satisfied. The void was there when I was drinking. I just drowned the feelings out. Now I am enveloped in the void, and its pulling and yearning cannot be ignored. And the only thing that scratches that itch for me, is to do something – anything – to offer help to those who need it. Making money, gaining power or receiving accolades doesn’t make me feel better. It just doesn’t. In fact, traditional signs of success make make me sad for time wasted chasing the wrong goals.


Presents under the tree aren’t a sign of blessings or achievement. For me, they have become a sign of ignorance and wasted gifts and talents. They are signs of the void ignored. They make we want to watch A Christmas Carol one more time.


I don’t know what this means for my Christmases yet to come, but I’m available if a spirit wants to come help me set the course for my future. In the meantime, I hope to rethink Christmas to spend a lot more time filling my void and a lot less ignoring it and hoping it goes away. I’m greedy for the void-filling feeling. I want more and more and more.


My daughter filmed and edited this video from Christmas in the Park 2018. It provides just a glimpse into the vastness of the void. If I’ve only got a five pound bag of Christmas, I want to stuff it full of ten pounds of this and leave the gluttony to the memories of Christmases past.


Maybe the void that lives in me lives in you, too. Maybe you want to change your life and get actively involved. Don’t just do it for your neighbors, do it for greedy void-filling progress. In case you’re not sure if your neighbors need your help, take a look at the size in the line of homeless people at about the 1:40 mark in the video. Scratch that itch and fix your Christmas.


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  • Reply
    Cheri Miller
    January 3, 2019 at 10:51 am

    I like your new Christmas “addiction”, Happy New Year!

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      January 3, 2019 at 3:46 pm

      Happy New Year right back at ya, sis!

  • Reply
    January 25, 2019 at 10:24 am

    You spoke right to my heart and deep longing for many years of trying to find my true way to celebrate Christmas. I am 71 years old. The last 2 years I have done Christmas my way without any ties to family or friends. Being a people pleaser it was hard in the past to “do it my way”. You have inspired me and also given me a new idea of not only for this next Christmas but how to keep the giving going all year long. I am not sure what direction to go in yet. But I am now in a more active search because you spoke up. Thank you so much!!

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      January 25, 2019 at 10:40 am

      Sometimes there is a great deal of fun in not really knowing where you are going. I guess we’ll both just know when we get there. Thanks so much for your feedback, Teresa!

  • Reply
    Natasha Drew
    February 24, 2019 at 8:00 am

    Great video, Catherine!!!

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