The Pull of the Holidays

holiday dinner

When I think about the upcoming holidays, my mind’s eye sees all the magazine-cover images: tables set for six or eight or twelve. They’re laid out with the good china, the crystal, the candlesticks, and table décor. They’re heaped with glistening turkeys, vegetables you’ve never heard of, and pies so beautiful they could be décor, too.

I am pulled—I will not deny it—by an aspiration to that generic, Instagram brand of perfection. 

But I also feel a stronger, truer pull to the particular beauty of what I first experienced, of what feels like home to me. 

I come from a large, loud, lively family, so I’m nostalgic for a little chaos. I want people. I want to barely get through the door before I’m barraged by the hugs and greetings of the people I love. I want to say dozens of hellos. I want to lug in my potluck contributions and have trouble squeezing them onto a too-full table. I want to gingerly squeeze the old people and vigorously kiss the baby cheeks. 

Nevermind the fine china—I want to wait in line, paper plate in hand, to sample the corn pudding and cold turkey and sweet potatoes fried in butter and sugar. I want to not care what my kids put on their plates, and I want to eat with my own plate on my lap, perched on a chair at the periphery of the family room. 

I want to watch my father fall asleep watching football. I want to work with my mom and aunts to pack away the leftovers. I want to play cards with my cousins at the cleared-off table, a mug of coffee in hand. I want to kiss and hug my way through the house before we can leave.

There have been other pulls, too: pulls that are less fun than the Instagram perfection or the joyful chaos of large family gatherings, but pulls that are good in their own way.

Parental responsibility is a mundane but necessary pull. We mothers go through seasons when every holiday feels like an impossible calculation. I remember trying to pile them onto my too-full plate. Running the gauntlet at home with multiple babies and toddlers, exhausted, doing the best I could, and still feeling embarrassed to turn up late to dinner. Struggling to feed and care for my small children while also feeding myself and trying to engage with the people around me. Sitting in a darkened room nursing a baby while listening to muffled laughter and my own stomach rumbling.

Marriage can be a complicated pull. My husband was always a good sport regarding my family’s chaos, but I have never seen him so happy on a holiday as that first Covid Christmas, when it was just us and our children, alone in our own home. That day showed me that there is something good and beautiful about that way of celebrating, too. And it reminded me that there is something very good indeed about seeing such pure peace and joy on your beloved’s face.  

Other sorts of changing family dynamics can also make for pulls: combining families and dividing families and accounting for the traditions and expectations of each. Moving and traveling, or growing too large or too small, to do things as you’ve always done.

All of that can be touchy enough. But then there are the pulls you don’t expect or ever want—the illnesses, the deaths, even a pandemic—the brutal realities that must somehow be met in a healthy way.

There is just so much to balance, to figure out, to accommodate.

In the past several years of wrestling with these pulls, I have learned something important. God, in His goodness, has drawn me to all of these good things. The pulls have been His.

God pulls me toward the beauty of the elegantly-set table. God pulls me toward the delicious feast. He pulls me toward the love and companionship of family. He pulls me toward service, toward selfless responsibility. He pulls me toward the consideration of others’ feelings and attachments. He pulls me toward the hugs and kisses, the shouts and laughter. God pulls me toward the goodness of the quiet moment.

God, in His goodness, has drawn me to good things. But God does not provide all those good things at once.

On Earth, that is. I once had a dream in which some estranged loved ones and I greeted one another with perfect understanding, perfect good will, perfect love. There was no trace of hurt or resentment—only joy. It was a marvel, a wonder. It took me months to realize that the dream had been a foretaste of heaven. There, we will love fully and completely. There, we will experience all beauty, all joy, all good things at once.

But we are not there yet. Here, we are limited. Here, we are imperfect. Here, we experience goodness in smaller portions.

It’s taken me a while, but I’ve come to value those smaller portions. And I’ve come to love the pulls, even when they will go unfulfilled. It is good to recognize God’s calls in my life. It is good to feel pulled toward beauty, joy, service, love, kindness, and peace. 

It is good to enter this season expecting not perfection, but goodness in its varied, sometimes surprising forms. It is always there. It may seem to be something less than I hoped for, or it may look different than I expected, but it is there. 

This year, I am eager to sit down to the table to see what goodness will be served.

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Julie Varner Walsh’s life has always centered around politics and her Catholic faith, and that has made for some strange combinations. Raised in a staunchly Republican family, Julie worked mostly with Democrats when she was a lobbyist for the Catholic Church on matters related to poverty, immigration, and health care. Today she finds herself politically homeless, but not politically aimless. Julie has found purpose in encouraging people to look beyond labels, to focus more on the moral implications of politics than the partisan horse race.

Julie writes on politics, faith, and family life on her Instagram account (@julievwalsh) and blog, called These Walls. She also has a podcast, called More Than Politics

Julie lives with her husband and five children in Maryland.

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