The real joy of Christmas is just being alive
I know a lot of people feel down this time of year, particularly those who’ve lost loved ones. Christmas becomes an annual reminder of those who aren’t with us anymore. My husband is one of them.
Round about the time Halloween is over, Joe slowly sinks down into the darkest depths of his soul, just like the Earth as it reaches its farthest (and darkest, in the Northern Hemisphere) point from the sun at the Winter Solstice.
Every year, despite my best attempts to attach another helium balloon to my own personal Eeyore, he still manages to succumb to sadness and grief, and I suppose my reminders to be thankful and happy for those who are still with us don’t really do much good. But, that’s my nature — to compulsively seek out the best in every situation and find something bright and hopeful to cling to, because I don’t do despair well. Depression is not my default mode. And let’s face it, maudlin makes my butt look fat.
This year, however, as we sat on the sofa mulling over the holidays that this year had the added flair of Joe having been laid off just in time for Christmas, he asked me an odd question: “Are your childhood memories of Christmas happy?” I paused, and thought about that, and thought about that, and slowly concluded, “No, they weren’t.”
Although there was no shortage of Christmas presents or parties, Christmas in my childhood home felt utterly hollow, likely a reflection of my parents’ marriage, which was the same. Surely the lack of Christmas cheer was partially due to my mother’s Jehovah’s Witnesses upbringing, and although she’d defected as an adult, she clearly had some residual issues about celebrating Christmases and birthdays.
An aloof person to begin with, Christmas seemed to be more of a hassle to her than anything else, and she was more than glad to let me deck the halls as soon as I was big enough to drag the boxes of decorations up from the basement. I never had any shortage of holiday cheer, because even as a small child, I recognized that somewhere out there, Christmas was special and it mattered. I supposed that’s “hope.”
Whether her religious upbringing or simply a dislike of emotional displays, she just wasn’t into Christmas, which traditionally (in America, anyway) includes putting careful thought into picking out gifts to bring someone else joy. That just wasn’t her bag. She would buy gifts that filled the bill of “stuff under the tree,” but I always sensed when I opened them that she didn’t spend any more time choosing those gifts than it took to shove her hand into the nearest clearance bin and carry whatever she grabbed to the nearest checkout counter.
You can feel it when a gift didn’t really matter to the person who gave it to you, and by association, neither do you. Neither did I, to her. It took me a long while to figure that out about my mother, and face it, but there it is, and I’m able to just examine it for what it is, like a kidney stone after surgery.
As for my dad, he seemed to like Christmas well enough, but his alcoholism and PTSD slowly eroded his mind and he was absorbed with his own inner world of paranoia and angst. But, at Christmas time, he’d tear up every time “The Little Drummer Boy” played. It hit a nerve… “I am a poor boy too, pah-rum-pa-pa-pum…” I could — can— feel his pain zing right through me.
So, between my mother’s perpetual aloofness and my father’s psychological issues, I should ball this all up and dance along with my husband’s despair at this time of year, and just suck it up and endure it until we can exhale on New Year’s Day. Right?
Oh, so wrong, you little Grinches!
My mother taught me well on how not to do most everything, including Christmas. Lesson: Give gifts that convey love and joy. My father taught me that pain and trauma, gone unattended, will eventually consume you. Lesson: Do not delay celebrating holidays, people and life, because life can be brutally snatched away. Rather than mourn at Christmas for those who are gone, I go full-on Chipmunk Christmas and celebrate those who are still here.
When my children were small, there was always a pile of presents under the tree, decorations, visits with Santa, and as much holiday cheer as my credit cards would allow. It hasn’t changed much since. When I think about them coming home for Christmas, ham and twice-baked potatoes, Christmas morning surprises, and just being cozy and together again, I can’t help but bubble with joy: My babies are back.
They’re both adults now, but my holiday spirit is still young. I think it is with them too, even though they have to split Christmas between two parents who parted ways. Even so, they seem to look forward to coming home, to the gifts and feasting, the people and the parties. I certainly hope so. Because the fact that they’re both still here, alive and well, and able to come home, and that I am too, well, it’s pretty hard not to feel joyful about that — particularly now that I’ve outlived my both my parents. That point is accentuated by the knowledge that not everyone can say that. But I can: We’re all still alive! Woohoo! Jingle the bells and deck the halls? Oh ho-ho-heck yes!
Happy Christmases Past? No, I didn’t have those, until I had kids of my own. But Christmas Present still looks pretty wonderful to me, and the prospect of being blessed with Christmases Future nearly makes me giddy.
For those who cannot say the same, who grieve this time of year, I wish you healing and peace. My Christmas wish is that you’d look around and appreciate the people still with you. They make life worth living. Everything else is just tinsel.