Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
January 2014 - Volume 14, No. 1
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The Hidden Holiday Gift

It’s January, and we’re just now emerging from two (actually three) months of holidayitis (technically meaning a festering or pathological inflammation of holiday ‘spirit’). This generally involves a largely commerce-driven confluence of four (count-em) major holidays that populate the last quarter of each calendar year, a time when nature itself enters a period of dormancy, decay, dissolution and then frozen silence (at least here in my northern midwest homeland). If you happen to have a birthday during this time, you’re additionally blessed/burdened.

Holy Day

The root meaning of “holiday” is “holy day” a day in the midst of ordinary time when the sacred intrudes or intervenes into our regular experience of the world for the purpose of respite, renewal, and usually some public expression of merry-making.    

The commercial over-hyping of this time has led to a besmearing of this gift over the entire calendar of a full quarter of the year. It’s like being forced to eat quality chocolate cake every day for three months; the inevitable result being we can easily get “sick” of it - and if we’re diabetic, it will probably kill us.


The “holy day” intrusion of the sacred into our ordinary time can have various meanings, according to one’s particular sacred cosmology or philosophy. And each holiday can have its own particular ‘sacred story’ heritage. Inherent in the meaning of most holidays is the idea of sharing and/or gifting. A primary example of this is the Christmas gift or present - something given willingly to another without payment or necessary reciprocity. For Christian folk, this can mirror God’s gift to us in the Christ child.


I find it useful to consider that every holiday (holy-day) inherently has a gift for us. And frequently this gift carries the nature of something given from outside of ourselves - as if placed secretly on our doorstep. In the racket and commotion of our modern holiday experience, this gift is most often hidden. Hidden means it then needs to be specifically sought - somewhat like the children’s Easter egg hunt, or the single precious coin baked within a holiday cake.  

It is my experience that a real holiday gift is usually missed within the busyness of the holiday itself; overshadowed perhaps by the customary or prescribed gifting that takes place. And its only by conscious reflection afterwards that what has been missed can usually be uncovered. 

The seeking question

Therefore I suggest that at the end of each Holiday, or shortly afterwards, we each take some time apart to ask the seeking question: What gift has been hidden for me within this holiday? I find this especially useful after Christmas (or as the Church sees things, within the eight-day octave of Christmas, or in the time ending with The Epiphany, January 6). New Years Day can be an excellent set-aside time for this (no, it most likely has nothing to do with football).

There is wisdom in knowing that a question needs be asked in order to have an answer emerge. Plus, there’s often a part of ourselves that doesn’t want to ask because we really don’t want to know. After all, if the gift comes from outside ourselves, and what is outside isn’t necessarily within our control, we may be afraid - what if it’s a gift that asks something of us we don’t really want (like changing our life)? Yes, it can take courage to ask.

The seeking

Don’t overthink during this seeking. Thinking often forces us to accommodate to our already established ‘thought hoard.’ No, this gift often comes from outside ourselves - which involves a different kind of seeking. Let the mind quiet, think little, let the gift emerge on its own power. One benefit of a busy life is we never have to do this kind of seeking. One curse of a busy life is we never get to take time to do this kind of seeking.

Once something emerges, hold it for awhile, in one hand, then in the other. Then place it next to your heart to see if it fits there. Does your heart trust it? Is this a representation of the freedom and/or heart desires of being a human being? In my case, if the answer is yes, then it’s a worthy gift. If not, keep seeking.  

Gifts are given for the purpose of being used (like holiday cookies are meant to be eaten). What will it mean for me to use it? Will I use it from the truth of my heart? Or will I use it just to please others, to justify myself, or to keep myself safe from change, anxiety, even chaos? Sometimes the outcome of psychotherapy is the enhanced ability to make these discernments.

Decision - for Life

Gifts can often mean we have decisions to make. Initially it seems we can make safe decisions or bold decisions. I like to say it another way:  We make decisions for the sake of Life. It’s my contention that the gifting from holy days is always for the purpose of awakening more Life in each of us. After all, Life is originally placed within us from outside, from an external source.

Here are two useful principles:  

(1) Whatever we decide, we know we will eventually die. So the purpose of decision is for the sake of the Life we live in the meantime.  

And (2), we can never really know the outcome of a decision we don’t make.  

In a way, we can never know ahead of time whether our particular decision is “right” or “wrong.” In a strange sense, there is no right or wrong, there are only outcomes which we cannot perfectly predict. And the gifts that come from holy days are often those meant to lead us farther into Life, and farther into the risks of Life. One useful saying for me is that ships are safest in harbor, but ships were not built for harbors, they were built for the open waters.

So when we seek the hidden gifts that are the high purpose of holy days, be ready to be challenged. Be ready to be tested, be ready make decisions, be ready to choose Life.  

And there are many who want, even need, to trust each of you to be faithful in this.

Pay attention

Comments (2)

  • On the Spot


    You hit this one “on the spot.” If we step back from the mania of the holidays and look to the quiet – we see other gifts than just from reflection: family, love, hospitality, and the things we take for granted. People who are alone at the holidays understand these better. Your family may drive you crazy, but imagine the holidays without them. Their “love” that you don’t have and the warmth of the “hospitality” shown to get everyone together in a warm house with hot food, cold drinks, running water, and simplicity of being able to come and go as is pleased. The ice storm this year changed peoples lives, yet so many don’t pay attention to what that single storm did – it changed all of these things, and when the power came back on, for some there was loss – homes and loved ones. The most precious gift is the love of the people we call family – blood or adopted does not matter – when it’s gone, it’s gone, and it changes the holidays forever.

    — Jan, 1/2/2014
  • “ships are safest in harbor, but ships were not built for harbors, they were built for the open waters” I really like this analogy.

    — Alice, 1/2/2014

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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