(Last December, you may recall, was a rough one in the news and for many people personally. A good friend asked me to find this piece I wrote on my blog about surviving the holidays, as she thought it would be helpful for a friend of hers. As we sweep into the heart of the holiday season, the squabbles are ramping up about this that and the other things; it’s a certainty that many of the public news squabbles will be served up on Thursday at family dinner tables along with the sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce. It’s also a certainty than many people loathe this time of year but have to put on a brave face. I hope it helps the friend who reads it; I hope it may help anyone else who is dreading the holidays.)
Christmas is when we gather up everything good in our life, all the warmth and the light and all the good memories, and draw it close and enjoy it as much as we are able to. We gather up our children, make food, light the lights, sing the songs. We come as close as possible for as long as possible. – Garrison Keillor, Now it is Christmas Again
It is now Christmas Eve in Australia and Europe. Some of you are beginning the last of the preparations for Christmas. So many of you are struggling at this time of year when we’re all *supposed* to be happy. I read your journals and I see illness, conflicts, unemployment, family problems, grief over deeply personal things that you’re powerless to fix. In addition, most people are still reeling in some way from the seemingly nonstop tragedies, large and small, that have hit us all recently.
It is a wicked world in which the power of any individual to cause suffering is so great and the power to do good is so slight. – Garrison Keillor
I wish I had something magical to say that would make this Christmas joyful, or at least pleasant, for you all. This is the best I can do:
We had a perfect Christmas… We went for a long walk on the beach and then watched The Godfather II and ate hot-fudge sundaes. – Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions
I used to long for “perfect” Christmases because the Christmases I grew up with were anything but secure and stable. I never knew if something bad was going to happen that would make it sad, or make me feel guilty, or embarrassed, and so I had this fantasy about what I thought the perfect Christmas would be. I pictured a happy family enjoying Christmas carols around a perfectly decorated Christmas tree. I wanted singing and music, and I wanted snow falling and carolers at the door. I wanted a huge table set with linens and crystal and china, a lovely and bountiful dinner, and for us to spend Christmas night together enjoying looking at our presents and finally dropping off to sleep, knowing that all would be right with the world in the morning.
That didn’t happen.
We can build up our expectations for the perfect holiday, but if others don’t buy into our vision of Christmas it will all come crashing down around us, like the woman in this article from the New York Times.
A Holiday Built on Presence, Not Presents
By Carolyn S. Briggs
Published: December 20, 2012
My three vegetarian, activist, urban, multi-degreed, agnostic, adult children have rejected Christmas as a consumerist sham of a holiday, one in which they will not be participating. Oh, they’ll take the day off and drink organic wine, but they won’t be buying presents, putting up a tree, baking cookies, lighting candles or decking any halls. There will be no taking of a family picture for their card and no sending of that card or any other.
For me, Christmas is one of those fleeting but essential “aah” moments of generosity, family bonding and extravagance of spirit that psychologists tell us matter because they give us the opportunity to transcend, appreciate and feel outside of time. I don’t know about you, but I need that at least once a year.
When my parents were divorcing the winter that I was 15, there was no Christmas tree at our house. We waited for Christmas to come, and it wouldn’t, so finally my little brother and I pooled our paper-route and baby-sitting money, tucked the dollars and coins inside our mittens, and walked across town to buy our own tree. We carried it several blocks home, dodging ice and snowdrifts. When we arrived, we decorated the crooked tree on our own. The house was cold, but when we plugged in the lights, my siblings and I were filled with relief. Everything would be all right.
That year my father came home on Christmas Eve bearing unwrapped presents from the minimart where he worked: radios and alarm clocks and electric curlers. He left us sitting in front of the television with our pile of gifts, price tags still attached, and went to find my mother in the bedroom, where she had been for hours.
I remember feeling hopeful they would come out together in the morning and fix pancakes the way they always did on Christmas. It seemed possible and, for one blazing moment, probable.
Last Christmas, I relented to family pressure and agreed that my children and their partners did not have to come to us in Iowa. Instead, we would all get hotel rooms in New Orleans. I reserved a suite so we would have a living room for our holiday activities. A family friend would be in the area, too, so I invited him to join us for Christmas Eve. We were excited about the food and music, the atmosphere of a truly beautiful and one-of-a-kind city, and the mild weather.
There would be no homecoming, no wrapped gifts and no grandchildren to fill with Santa dreams. My grown children were childless by choice and vowed to remain that way. Desperate for a smattering of tradition, I ordered red (for the girls) and green (for the boys) Christmas stockings from Pottery Barn, and had everyone’s name stitched in lovely script across the white band at the top.
I e-mailed everyone promising a Christmas Eve surprise. Once we assembled, I would instruct each to write a message of love, appreciation, memory, prayer (O.K., not likely with this crowd) or best wishes for the new year, and we would stuff the stockings with these messages.
The sunny day we arrived in New Orleans, I was optimistic that Christmas in the Big Easy might be easy after all. We are a family of travelers, and exploring together is something we are seldom able to do anymore, and everyone loves a movable feast. One person brought a good supply of pot, though, which meant at least half of our party would be getting stoned.
Walking through the streets of New Orleans on Christmas Eve was a singular experience. There were palm trees wrapped with lights, ludicrously over-the-top decorations on shotgun houses, the smells of something deep and unctuous cooking in steamy pots, and block after block of pink and yellow flowers.
We ducked inside a historic tavern for oysters on the half shell. (Oysters feel no pain, my suddenly seafood-eating children assured one another.) Later we dined at a long table, my family in our Sunday best, grown up and civilized, with cloth napkins on our laps. I felt matriarchal and humble and blessed. That Christmas transcendence settled in, and I finally relaxed.
When we returned to the hotel suite, I arranged the stockings on the fake fireplace, put out bowls of snacks, opened a bottle of wine, and gathered plastic cups from the bathroom. It was not elegant, but it was the best I could do. My friend called from the lobby; he was on his way up. I handed out the stockings, paper and pens. There was dismay at the assigned sentiment. They smiled at the stockings the way they would have smiled at anything outdated and useless, with pained tolerance.
My friend walked into the suite, and I’d be damned if he hadn’t brought a young woman with him. My friend is younger than I am, but this woman was probably half his age and wearing one of those stupid knit hats with the ties dangling on either side of her face. I would hate her for many things before the night was over, but that insufferable hat was the first thing I hated her for.
I clutched my pen and paper insistently, but the others had already set their stockings aside. Banter ensued, during which the young woman assumed the starring role of my Christmas Eve. She had a lot of stories. Some were about the desert. The stories went on and on until she loudly concluded, in an apparent epiphany, “I love rocks!”
This was sidesplittingly funny to some people in the room, but I’d had enough. I stood up and went into the bedroom portion of the suite and flopped down on the bed. My husband came in a few minutes later and rubbed my back as the party raged in the other room. It was Christmas Eve, and my family was stoned. Christmas was a bourgeois farce to them. I was furious at everyone, even at my sweet husband rubbing my back.
At midnight, I heard church bells, a sound that only exacerbated my disgust and self-pity. I jumped up, grabbed the coats of my friend and his young friend, and asked them to leave. It was the first time in my life I had ever asked anyone to leave my home, even if my temporary home was a hotel suite. Then I turned to my startled family and preceded to glare, scold and cry. The sober people tried to be conciliatory, but I was having none of it.
That night as I lay in my hotel bed, I did not move a muscle. I lay there like a dead person, eyes open, heart stone cold. My disappointment over this failed Christmas mingled with my sorrow that my parents never did emerge from their bedroom that Christmas morning decades earlier, arms around each other, to make us pancakes.
At breakfast the next day, Christmas morning, I felt strained and tight. No one liked me much. Conversation was conducted on all sides of me. I grimly ordered pancakes. My children were all staying in New Orleans, but my husband and I had a plane to catch. I loved Christmas so much I had destroyed it; I had choked my precious Yule puppy to death.
I have thought about my behavior all year, and I am resolved not to become the old person in the family who remains recalcitrant and claims outsize privilege with age. I am not going to guilt my children anymore for not giving me what I assumed they would be happy to provide.
I had hoped for grandchildren, and I wanted those grandchildren with glossy hair and pajamas sitting around my Christmas tree each and every year, but that’s not what I’m going to get. My children will bring kennels and leashes to my house, not strollers and car seats. They are going to be exchanging notes on dog food and doggy day cares, and they will continue to refer to their peers who are parents as breeders.
We are all going to meet at my daughter’s in Texas at the end of December. Even though we will never attempt a traditional Christmas again, we will have some winter holiday gathering where we eat bowls of faro and root vegetables topped off by a dessert of silken tofu lemon mousse. We will share stories of our lives and travels. The guitars will come out.
At some point, the girls and I will erupt in an argument, but we will immediately make up by piling into my daughter’s king-size bed to watch “Downton Abbey.” I’ll jump out of the bed when the dogs jump in, and this will make the girls laugh and ask me to please stay. And I will, of course. This year, there will be room at the inn for everyone.
This at once broke my heart for the writer but also made me realize that we cannot expect others to know what it is we want, nor can we expect others to provide our happiness for us.
Building up impossible expectations about the events of one day will inevitably lead to disappointment. We can get through any 24-hour period. We may need to excuse ourselves from the festivities to ensure our peace of mind, or we may need to join in with more enthusiasm than we actually feel. Or we may need to create our own version of the perfect Christmas, as Anne Lamott wrote. Hot-fudge sundaes, a walk on the beach, and watching an old movie with like-minded people sounds like an excellent day to me. We have a choice: feel miserable about all the fun we think other people are having, or choose to enjoy that day on our terms.
There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. – Leonard Cohen, Anthem
I wish for you peace and contentment, and the beginnings of hope and light getting in through the cracks. Merry Christmas.