As a child, my favorite Christmas song was “Joy to the World.” My mother once told me she used to marvel at how I would belt out the words to that song like I was a Broadway star as I sat on the seventh row of the Southport Methodist Church. I loved the song, but more than that I liked the word “joy.” I figured you had to work to be happy, but it seemed you could choose joy.
By now this word has woven itself into the tapestry of me. When I was ten or eleven, I didn’t like my name. Instead of Sandi, or Sandra when mom was mad, I wanted a name like Annette of Disney fame, but then I learned the name of the girl with braces in my Scout troop. Leading up to Christmas that year, this girl who was new to our troop had been my secret Santa. On our “reveal day,” I met her, and she gave me a journal and signed the card “Joy.” At that moment it dawned on me that the word joy could be a name. I wanted it.
A week later I asked my mom to file a petition to change my name. “It would be a great Christmas present,” I suggested, doodling the word in my new journal like each letter was a jewel. My mom, sporting her hip corduroy pedal pushers and sneakers, was whipping up one of seventeen coffee cakes she baked and topped with walnuts for neighbors and church friends each holiday. “I like the name, Joy,” I added trying to catch her eye before she continued mixing the cake flour into the mixer bowl.
“Joy is a nice name, but you cannot change your name,” my mother said after pausing her Sunbeam mixer. “Your dad and I gave you the name Sandra because it is a special word. It means special things. Strength. Courage. Goodness. Kindness. Helper of others.” She wiped her bangs from her sweaty brow. “We wanted that for you,” she added definitively. In a peace offering she clicked the beaters out of the mixer and handed me one to lick, ending the conversation.
After that I started singing “Joy to the World” with complete abandon and probably off-key at church. Perhaps this was a child’s protest over the name debacle. Perhaps I genuinely felt the spirit of Christmas and this lovely word. But by now I understand that my mother knew best. While Joy did not become my name, Mom championed my connection to the word by buying me a Christmas ornament etched with the word “joy” that year. By now I have a nice collection of “joy” ornaments from her and friends. I also have a nice collection of words that I have learned to champion. In college I liked the word “peace,” when I bore my first child I could not stop celebrating with the word “miracle,” and during the pandemic I have become a fan of “hope.”
By now I have learned there are good reasons to hold on to words that lift us up. Words like love and peace, and of course, joy. According to Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman, words can actually have a profound impact on our brain.
In their book, Words Can Change Your Brain,” the authors write, “Certain positive words – like “peace” or “love” –may actually have the power to alter the expression of genes throughout the brain and body, turning them on and off in ways that lower the amount of physical and emotional stress we normailly experience throughout the day.”
How does this work? If you repeatedly think about the word “peace,” you will begin to experience a sense of peacefulness. As your thalamus receives this message of peace, it accepts it and passes it on to the rest of the brain. Then pleasure chemicals such as dopamine are released, and the brain is able to help your body relax and feel peaceful. At the same time anxiety and stress dissipate. Newberg and Waldmans’ brain scan research shows us that focusing on positive words can be stronger medicine than most drugs.
Today as I finished decorating my Christmas tree, I rummaged through my storage closet until my eyes landed on the Christmas stash. There was the velvet red tree skirt I needed. As I tugged it from the shelf, I knocked down a small box with it. It was a gift box that looked like it had been opened and lost in the fray with this pile of decorations. When I reopened it, it took me by surprise. My mother gave me this music box when I visited with her on Christmas day, two months before she died. Finding it felt magical to me. I was being called to remember. Now I wound it up and listened as the tiny white angel danced to the twinkling sounds of “Joy to the World.” I was filled with the wonder of the season. I send wishes that you discover many of these moments, too.