A mountain of wrapped packages. Brown-boxed surprises delivered to our door. Delicious homemade feasts with a roast turkey as the centerpiece. Opening presents around the tree in our jammies. Holiday music albums always pulled out the day after Thanksgiving. Christmas records and cassettes with read-along storybooks. Strings of colored lights. The melted pop bottle ornament I'd made in kindergarten. The needlepoint crosses from Gramma. Tinsel garland when I was little, cranberries and popcorn when I was a teenager recreating Little House on the Prairie. Dressing up in robes for our own little Christmas pageants (with a real baby brother as Jesus and a sister as the donkey/pig). Weeks of baking: platters of fancy cookies, gingerbread boys, honey-lemon rolls, a shelf of pies. Snowy Cream of Wheat for breakfast. Candles, an Advent wreath, fighting over the snuffer. Taking turns opening the tiny windows on the Advent calendar. Leaning down the stairs to catch a glimpse of the laden stockings. Crispy turkey skin we called "bacon". Paper chains. The well-loved purple book of Christmas stories.
The year Christmas fell on a Sunday so we went to church first, and when we got home we had to wait while Dad cleaned the carpet where the dog had soiled it. Christmas caroling down the halls of nursing homes that smelled like pee. The year that we were still opening gifts at 6 pm because opening a hundred gifts (one person at a time, with breaks for meals, takes so long. Having to get dressed before going downstairs. And line up and sing in a parade down to the kitchen for breakfast before gifts. Ice on the inside of the single-pane windows. Hiding presents in the mysterious boarded-up staircase accessible only from a ladder in the basement. The mountain of dishes that preceded the feast...and that remained in its wake. The year we were given a tree, and did not refuse it! The many, many December sermons I sat through thinking about (or trying not to think about) sex. The living nativity by the bay. Feeling lost and depressed as Christmas Day faded into Christmas night. Carob-coconut "haystacks". Belting out "O Holy Night" at a sing-along at the lighthouse in Northport. Driving through wealthy neighborhoods looking at the Christmas lights. Tithing my Christmas checks. Writing thank-you notes before opening the gifts.
The eight or so Christmases without a tree. The anxiety over avoiding Santa Claus. Gifts from relatives being withheld because they did not meet my parents' approval. Favorite Christmas albums about Jesus being taken out of circulation because they sounded "too secular". Knowing our beloved grandparents celebrated Christmas with forbidden card games and wine. Having a minor panic attack worrying that Dad would decide we should walk out of the Sight & Sound Theater's "Miracle of Christmas" performance because the songs about Jesus had a rock beat. Years and years of reciting the Christmas passage from the Gospel of Luke, just like Linus. My confusion and embarrassment when an elderly church lady asked our caroling group to sing "Frosty the Snowman" and "Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer"--it had been so long I'd forgotten the words. A horrid little tract from friends critical of celebrations of "Baal's-Mass". The tense year when we decided to draw names, and ended up postponing our Christmas till January.
This paragraph written by Jo for the Paradise Recovered blog resonates with me, though my ghosts are kinder than hers:
Most people think that I have it all together, and the truth is that I don’t. I learned how to pretend really, really well when I was in the group. I was never really allowed to have my own feelings or opinions, and I am learning with the help of my counselor to feel my feelings and grieve my losses. I’m learning to enjoy the holidays, but it is really, really hard. My two kids really love Christmas, and I love giving it to them. Still, there is always a sadness when they open their presents on Christmas morning. I think about the little girl who knew that there was a Christmas and tried to make herself feel better about it because she claimed to be serving God. She was tricked out of her childhood.
I wish Christmas was an unadulterated font of happiness, but it isn't for me and that's the way it is. The more I listen to people talk about their holiday experiences, the deeper my suspicions that "the hap- happiest season of all" is one enormous illusion: a mechanism for coping with the cold, the dark, and the last page of another calendar!
On the other hand, considering how many of our popular Christmas songs were gifts from Jewish songwriters, perhaps Christmastime is our society's grand aspiration toward joy, peace, and the embrace of humanity, in spite of the obstacles. Christmas is an audacious forward look, closure for what has been, the chutzpah necessary to move hopefully into the future. Christmas is an entire culture making lemons into lemonade, adding as much sweetness as required to overcome life's puckering edge.
I am trying to be patient with myself. To give myself space to work out my present feelings, both sad and glad. I'm trying to emphasize the things that make me happy: movies, jigsaw puzzles, festive foods, Christmas lights! The things that are "sacred" to me: rest, my husband, my children, time for reading, time for art, time observing nature's seasonal wonders. I am recycling old memories to create cozy new ones.
I will have happy holidays this year, damn it!
P.S.: If this post resonated with you, you may also appreciate "Avoiding Burnout", part of the Hurting for the Holidays series on Beth Morey's blog. Check it out!