Last year, two months before Christmas, I began an "experiment in joy." I decided to be joyful for the next 90 days. Since this was an experiment, there was room for failure.
If at times I felt gloomy, short-tempered, or just plain blah, I didn't beat myself up for it. Rather, recognizing that self-condemnation is a chief enemy of joy, I would simply return as best I could to my quiet resolve to rise above all circumstances and do whatever it took to lay hold of joy. In this way, I hoped over the course of 90 days to learn some of joy's secrets and to emerge a more jubilant person. I pictured my joy as a flabby muscle that, if exercised every day, would gradually grow stronger.
The first month of my experiment was amazing. I'm a moody person by nature, and never in my life had I experienced such a steady flow of pure happiness. By the second month, however, difficulties had set in. As Christmas approached, my days were more characterized by struggle than by joy. Still, each day in new and surprising ways, a measure of joy kept coming to me. I was learning not to focus on the darkness but always to look out for the light.
No Party Animal
Christmas tends to be a hard time for me, as it is for many. As the angels gather to announce their glad tidings, there is a parallel gathering of the ogres of materialism, busyness, unrealistic expectations, old sadness, and family strife. To be touched by the true joy of Christmas, it seems we must first encounter our own joylessness and our clumsiness at celebration.
In our family we traditionally refer to the day before Christmas Eve as "Christmas Adam." Similarly, the day after Christmas is "Christmas Cain," and the next day is "Christmas Abel." For years we have celebrated Christmas Adam with a story party, a gathering of friends and neighbors who are invited to bring a story or a poem to read aloud. I usually write a short story, someone brings a guitar, and everyone donates goodies. We read and sing and chat and chew, and no finer entertainment can be found anywhere.
This year, however, I'd hardly slept the night before and woke up feeling embroiled in problems. I'm not normally a party person, and the thought of having to get into the holiday mood for a bunch of friends that evening was overwhelming. Worst of all, I was in the middle of a wretched experiment in joy. The happy honeymoon was over. I'd begun to think of joy as a hard taskmistress, and of Christmas as her nasty elder sister.
Fortunately there was one thing that I was looking forward to on Christmas Adam: breakfast with Chris Walton. Chris is that rarest of people, someone who always blesses me. No matter what he's going through, what mood he's in, or what we do together—somehow I always leave his company feeling brushed by heavenly light. As we aren't able to see each other often, our times together are all the more precious.
So, nursing the kind of hangover that comes from imbibing too much gloom, I set off to meet Chris at Ricky's Restaurant for bacon and eggs. Even in times of tragedy, being with a true friend can have a normalizing effect. In Chris's presence, I gradually began to relax as we talked about favorite books and music, about Christmas plans, about our families, and about Jesus. I particularly recall that we discussed, for some reason, the Jewishness of Jesus and how the only Bible he had was the Hebrew one. We speculated on what it might be like to read the Old Testament through Jewish eyes.
The more we talked, the more I sensed a quiet joy tugging at my sleeve like a little child. I cannot say I was feeling entirely happy by the time we rose to leave, but a warmth was stealing over me. Still, it was the sort of thing that might easily have been snatched away by the next small annoyance, were it not for the strange event that transpired in the parking lot.
We were standing beside our cars, Chris by his door and I by mine, saying our goodbyes. Traffic was rushing by on Fraser Highway, making it difficult to hear. But as Chris raised his hand in a wave and beamed a last, broad smile, I distinctly heard him call out, Yabba-ka-doodles!
Yabba-what? What did he mean? What language was this? As we'd just been talking of Jewish matters, I wondered if Chris might be delivering some traditional Yiddish holiday greeting. I felt a bit like Mary, who, when hailed by the angel Gabriel, "wondered what kind of greeting this might be."
"What did you say?" I called back.
This time Chris threw back his head, beamed as brightly as if he were seeing an angel himself, and belted out, YABBA-KA-DOODLES!
Chris is not much given to spontaneous ecstatic utterances. Maybe he was just goofing off? More puzzled than ever, I left my car and walked around to where he was standing.
"I don't get it," I said. "Yabba-ka-doodles. What does it mean?"
"Yabba-what?" said Chris.
"Yabba-ka-doodles. You said Yabba-ka-doodles and I want to know what it means."
"Yabba-ka-doodles? I didn't say Yabba-ka-doodles."
"Then what did you say?"
"I said, 'I'm glad we could do this.'"
"I'm glad we could do this?" I echoed blankly.
For a moment we stared at one another, listening to the sound of this inane, colorless sentence against the rapturous syllables of Yabba-ka-doodles.
And then we both burst into laughter, wild, hilarious, thigh-slapping gales of it there in Ricky's parking lot. It was so absurd a mistake, so gloriously unlikely. And partly because of that, it filled us with that unlikeliest of qualities in this darkly unsettling world—joy! It was a rich and preposterous joy, as surprising as if Santa Claus himself (or his Yiddish uncle) had come thundering down out of the sky in his sleigh.
All the way home in the car I kept muttering, caressing, shouting that silly word—"Yabba-ka-doodles. … Yabba-ka-doodles"—giggling and guffawing like a schoolboy. Talk about joy! More than happy, I felt drunk with joy for the rest of that day. And when Chris and I saw each other next, on Christmas Eve, we nearly jumped into each other's arms, yelling, "Yabba-ka-doodles, brother!"
Who would have believed that so much joy could be contained in one crazy, purely imagined word? Later I wondered: Were my ears playing tricks, or is it possible that Chris, without realizing it, really did say Yabba-ka-doodles? Was he unknowingly used as a messenger of God to me, delivering the joyous news of Christmas in an angelic tongue?
When I was a student at Regent College, one of my Old Testament professors was Bruce Waltke, who had worked on the translation committee for the New International Version. In his lectures, Dr. Waltke loved to linger over the subtleties of ancient Hebrew, expounding different interpretations of a single word or phrase, and building a strong case for his own favored translation. Yet he also pointed out that translation is not salvation. As he was fond of saying, "I've known people who were saved through a verse of Scripture that I know is mistranslated."
On Christmas Adam last year, I was transported into joy through a phrase I had misunderstood, which has now entered my vocabulary as a traditional Christmas greeting. And so, as Tiny Tim piped up, "God bless us, every one," I say resoundingly to each and every one of you: Yabba-ka-doodles!
Mike Mason is a full-time writer living in British Columbia. He is author of several books, including The Mystery of Marriage (Multnomah, 1985) and The Mystery of Children (Waterbrook, 2001). He is writing a book about his experiment in joy.
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