This Advent I’m going Southern and weird for my daily devotional. I’ll be standing in this season of anticipation and light with a copy of Rodger Lyle Brown’s Ghost Dancing on the Cracker Circuit placed firmly in my hand.

In the early 1990’s Brown traveled the southeastern United States visiting Mayberry Days, hillbilly festivals, and street parades that celebrate Hernando De Soto. You know, “fun” stuff for southern white folks. He documents a people trying desperately to hang onto their past:

ghost dancingI’d been to a Rattlesnake Roundup, Swine Time, the North Carolina Tobacco Festival of Clarkton, Inc., and now the International Banana Festival, and everywhere I went I detected the imminent presence of cultural death…I couldn’t help but sense that there was something going on in the countryside—entropy, dissolution, decay—and that I was seeing it expressed in these annual weekend episodes of public culture.

Brown’s title references the Native American Ghost Dance movement and its an interesting choice. He writes that these were actual dances or collective social choices that brought the tribes back to an earlier cultural memory, “The Native American movements were responses to social and cultural deprivations, population loss and the disappearance of familiar ways of life.” Still Brown draws a sharp distinction in his comparison with rural white culture. He claims that these small town festivals are ghost dancing something that was never really there.

Years ago I read this fascinating little book as a Southern Studies major at the University of Mississippi. There could not have been a more suitable setting. At first glance, Oxford is one of those rare places that has maintained its beautiful downtown. But take a closer look and you’ll realize that things are not what they seem. Many of the establishments on the Square with useful-sounding titles serve different purposes all together. City Grocery is a (delicious) restaurant. The Library is a bar. And lest you think Graduate Oxford is some kind of educational resource, it’s actually a high-end hotel. If it weren’t for the glorious Square Books (an actual bookstore) and the courthouse, you would only go to the Square in Oxford, Mississippi to eat/drink lavishly, dress expensively, or pose inappropriately with the William Faulkner statue. Most of us pick some combination of the three. And so the town square in Oxford has never been as picturesque or as fundamentally useless as it is today.

As a Southern Studies nerd, I love this stuff. As an anxious human being who always looks for the greener grass in the past, I feel convicted. The idea that our present can be filled with these failed ghost dances haunts me. Marriage, children, and this blessed holiday season are all opportunities to try to recreate something that never really existed to begin with.

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I’m always astonished when people talk longingly about their first year of marriage. Especially if, like me, they got married before their brain was fully developed. What is it that they are nostalgic for exactly? Intimacy with someone they don’t know that well? The financial stress of suddenly sharing a bank account? Eating burned food?

It is similar to the way well-intentioned people insist on telling new parents things like, “Just wait until they are teenagers. Then you’ll miss these days.” If I miss getting up 5 times in one night to feed a baby that I am worried that I might smother if I fall asleep on, then you, Madame, will be the first to know. Until then, I’m just going to go with the present as being its own kind of difficulty and trust that the future will be challenging in entirely different ways.

The holiday season is in a category of Ghost Dancing all by itself. We all seem to be longing for that magical and thrilling Christmas. Remember the one you had when you were four years old? Speaking from experience, my Pre-K self had exactly three things on the brain:

  1. How many sleeps until Christmas?
  2. How many sausage balls can I eat before someone notices?
  3. Will Santa get me that talking baby doll?

Now I have in-laws, a gluten free diet, and a baby who gets sick every time a stranger walks through the door. So even the baby is a failed ghost dance. The doll never threw up.

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Christmas is the season when the failed Ghost Dancing of our lives can take over everything. And so this Advent I figured I would read a book that speaks well to the idea that we cannot reclaim a past that never truly existed. This is the time of year when we bask in nostalgia for a simpler time. We surround ourselves with nativities and carols. We eat old family recipes and haul out the same sweet ornaments for the tree. And none of this is bad.

But we must remember why we long for the past. It is not because our previous Christmases have been just that incredible, but because we desire the closeness of Christmas itself. We long for the coming of the Christ child because His birth is the moment that God tells us to give up the Ghost Dance in all aspects of our lives. His Grace is sufficient, even when our misconstrued memories are not. Whether its marriage or child rearing, or your expectations for a very Merry Merry, clinging to a past can inadvertently shackle our present. Besides, things are never as good as we remembered.

And that’s okay. They don’t have to be. Because God already is.