As we approach the holiday season, many people choose to engage in some sort of gratitude practice. For my family, this has traditionally involved going around the table before holiday meals and giving thanks for something that has brought us joy in the past year. Often the things that we list are familiar and expected: friends, family, health, enough food to eat, a warm place to sleep, and good books to read. Other times people express gratitude around the transitions of life: the birth of a child, the love of a newly married couple, the support and care of friends and family in times of loss. We remember that even these simple, everyday blessings are not universally shared among all people, and we pray for the day when no one will experience hunger, everyone will have a safe place to lay their head, and all people will know what it means to love and be loved in return. Most years, I never devote much attention to this practice. More often than not, I find myself sitting at our holiday table without having given much thought to the things that I have been most grateful for in the past year. However, as I felt the pressure of the holiday season beginning to push in from all sides this week, I couldn’t help thinking about this tradition.
Tuesday evening, as I wrestled grocery bags and struggled to get my key in the front door, the stress and strain of the season suddenly descended. The weight of obligation wearied my spirit as I remembered all of the deadlines and commitments, the preparation, the cooking, the cleaning, and all the other responsibilities vying for my immediate attention. As I flicked on the lights, stacks of dirty dishes and piles of laundry greeted me. The disheveled assortment of books, papers, highlighters, and coffee cups splayed across the living room floor, which Stuart has fondly termed my “study nest,” welcomed me home. I quickly realized that I had forgotten to set the chicken out to thaw, and my best laid plans for that elusive, Pinterest-inspired, quick-and-healthy family dinner had been thwarted once again. Staring down the face of what promised to be a long evening of seemingly endless tasks, I felt totally overwhelmed and unsure of where I should even start. I sat down right in the middle of all the mess and surveyed this dismal scene. I won’t say that I cried, but we can all just agree that my contacts got a little messed up.
After a couple of moments and quite a few deep breaths, I got up and did the only thing I thought might help: I lit a candle. Candles, in general, are one of my favorite things. If I’m at home, it’s rare that I don’t have a candle lit. I have all different styles and scents of candles, but my absolute favorite are the pumpkin spice candles. We buy them by the dozen in the fall so that my stock does not dwindle throughout the year. Because they are my favorite, I usually save my pumpkin spice candles for special occasions. When work is done, deadlines are met, the house is clean, dinner is cooking, and everything is in order, lighting a pumpkin spice candle is like putting the cherry on top of an ice cream sundae. It is the finishing touch, a sigh of relief, and a pat on the back. To light a pumpkin spice candle in the middle of a chaotic, imperfect, stressful evening is anathema. Nevertheless, I lit my candle, said a prayer, and put a single dish away. Pretty soon, I had finished a whole sink-full of dishes and the first load of laundry. In the light of my pumpkin spice candle, everything started to look a little more manageable, a little more hopeful. Slowly, my anxiety began to dissolve, and one by one, I found myself completing tasks that had appeared formidable just a few moments before.
There’s nothing magical about pumpkin spice candles. They can’t write a paper or put away the groceries or tackle the laundry or the dishes. But there is something magical, maybe even sacramental, about choosing to light a candle even in the midst of the mess. Choosing to take a deep breath when life feels overwhelming, choosing to practice gratitude when life is burdensome, choosing to honor the process when everything feels incomplete, choosing to start wherever you are even when you are yet far off, this is what fills even our mundane, stressful days with light and hope. This year, as we go around the holiday table, giving thanks for our many blessings, I can honestly say that I am grateful for pumpkin spice candles and all the ways that grace meets us in the mess.