When I was around thirteen or fourteen, my father sat me down and said, “Things have been tough this year. There aren’t going to be a lot of presents this Christmas.” He wasn’t breaking big news on the “things haven’t been good” front. Our phone had been disconnected for over a year by that point and, in the mid-eighties, no house phone meant a seriously curtailed social life right as I was starting high school. Our water had been disconnected for a while for non-payment, too. My mother and I had had to walk five blocks to an old neighbor’s house with a laundry cart full of empty bottles to fill them up at her apartment and bring them back to ours so we could have water to cook with and with which to fill our toilet tanks. That winter, when they’d cut off our heat, mold had grown on the wall of my parents’ bedroom, near where my little brother slept.
Still, he told me with a weird half-smile, and I was sure he was kidding, trying to throw me off the scent. We’d always been poor, but my parents usually managed to pull together a Christmas that felt magical. I’d never believed in Santa Claus – my parents sat me down and told me the scoop when I was five, and warned me not to tell the other, credulous kids I met – but I still loved the thrill of unwrapping a Barbie doll or a new outfit. Surely they’d find a way to pull it together, I told myself.
But he wasn’t kidding. That year, when Christmas Eve came around, my parents said it wouldn’t even make sense to go through our ritual of waiting until midnight to open the presents, since there weren’t many. I had one, a backpack made of what looked like plastic. My brother, ten years younger, had a few more. I can’t remember if there was anything for my parents. I still remember the terrible sinkhole in my chest that night. There’d been a part of me that thought that if I wished hard enough, Christmas would not – could not – be sad. It was the first time I realized that was not true. Our apartment rang with a hollow sadness. It wasn’t just the things – presents are not all of Christmas, after all – but the sheer capitulation. No one seemed to have the energy for Christmas that year. We were all asleep well before midnight.
It was the first dark Christmas, but it was definitely not the last. I moved out of my house and got an apartment at eighteen, and got a job for $200 a week. Christmases were lean then, too, but I was busy working and going to college full time. I got into a relationship with a man who didn’t “do” Christmas, and I tried to pretend it didn’t matter. I told anyone who would listen that Christmas was lame, and commercial, and who cares anyway? I became anti-Christmas.
Christmas is a holiday of cruelly high expectations. The radio belts out that it’s “the most wonderful time of the year.” Commercials show us showroom-perfect trees and an intact families opening up the latest electronics or sparkly baubles. Everywhere we turn, we’re faced with the images of all the ways our lives seem to fall short. Although it turns out that the myth that suicides spike during the holidays is just that – a myth – it’s not hard to understand why so many people readily believe it: we’ve all felt the sting of loss and unmet expectations during the holidays. Christmas can feel exceptionally isolating, shining a light, as it does, on the gap between what is and what we wish would be.
I had my daughter six months shy of my 30th birthday, and since she was born in January, she was eleven months old her first Christmas. Finally, here was the idyll I’d been promised. I put fuzzy antlers on her and a bib that said “Baby’s First Christmas.” (I had to settle for the bib because she was massive for her age, nearly in 2T clothes at a year old, and no “Baby’s First Christmas” outfit fit her). I took pictures of her under the tree, by presents, lit by lights. Her brother joined us by the following Christmas. I took them to photo studios with Christmas props, I bought them a house full of presents every year. For a few years, I had the Norman Rockwell Christmas experience. With more stuff.
But my marriage started to fray even as my children were small, and by their eighth and seventh Christmas, my marriage was on the rocks. Although my then-husband was still living at home with us, he had been in a separate bedroom for over a year, and I’d file divorce papers not long after that Christmas. We shopped for the kids separately and I dutifully bought a few things for him so he’d have something to unwrap and the kids wouldn’t ask why Santa had forgotten Daddy. On Christmas morning, as my children eagerly dug into the big pile of wrapped presents and read the names off, handing them back and forth, it was my daughter who noticed it first.
“Mommy, why didn’t Santa bring you anything?” she asked.
Although I’d like to say I was a better mother than this, an old and ancient hurt overtook me, and I started to cry. My children offered to each give me one of their presents. My ex-husband sat by sheepishly. I had never felt so alone. That it was on the day one most expects to feel warmth and magic felt like the cruelest cut of all.
Such is the history of my Christmas. Throughout most of my twenties, I denied it vehemently, deciding I’d opt out entirely of the commercialized Frankenstein’s monster of a religion I hadn’t believed since I was fifteen. As a young mother I worked to make it perfect, settling for style where substance was sometimes missing. As a divorcee, I spent many a Christmas with a dark, unmovable boulder at the core of me, weighing me down with a deep, unshakable grief. I changed the station when I hit the Christmas music and bah-humbugged at every holiday party invitation where I knew I’d be the only person not paired up. For someone who yearns for perfection, Christmas presented an unattainable standard for most of my adult life.
A few years ago, I decided to reclaim Christmas. It wasn’t an “on the way to Damascus” bolt, but more of a slow truce. Christmas had been with me all my life. We’d had a long and complicated relationship, as one might with an ornery, close family member. But, as one does with the fixed and inflexible forces in life, I came to understand that Christmas would be a thing I’d be dealing with forever, and it didn’t make sense to remind myself every year of the pain it had so often brought.
I talked to the adults in my family and we agreed to strip Christmas of some of its pressure by not buying each other more than one, token gift. My kids, now old enough to deliver Christmas lists with Amazon URLs, told me early and often that they had everything they needed and were content with just a few presents instead of the sea of wrapping paper and bows. I absolved myself of sending Christmas cards (which, frankly, I’d never sent, but which I’d often felt absolutely horrible about). I started skipping holiday parties I just couldn’t cope with, usually putting the recurring ones on an every-other-year rotation so I’d only have to face one or two each season. I bought myself a Harry Potter Christmas T-shirt and decided I’d take what I liked of the season and let go of all the rest.
And there was a lot I liked. I loved my Santas, which I’d found for sale by the side of the road on my way to my mom’s house one Christmas more than a decade ago. They were beautiful, some still with tags on them, and I was proud of how I’d haggled the seller down, grabbing a whole bunch for what I’d normally have paid for one. I loved my wired Christmas ribbon, and my growing collection of sentimental ornaments which reminded me of the breathlessly fast passage of my children’s childhoods. I loved Christmas music, truly, with its almost Pavlovian capacity to elicit nostalgia and hopes for a perfect life. I even loved the Christian ones, the ones that had lost all their truth for me more than three decades ago, but could still turn the inside of me into a still lake of heavenly peace. I decorated the tree with my son, usually, (my daughter, mournfully, having inherited some of her mother’s fraught relationship with the holiday, usually looking on sulkily but not joining in). Once they’d both gone upstairs, I would sit in the glow of the Christmas lights and remember the many nights of my childhood when I would hide under the Christmas tree and imagine going on a grand adventure, like the portal to a better life existed under it.
Christmas is flawed, and fraught with twinges of pain for anyone who has ever loved. It is lonely sometimes, and demanding. It is financially taxing, and the tendency to divorce it runs heavy and deep in me. But it is a beat in every year, the gap between the exhale of one year and the inhale of the next. It is a time to choose – pain or renewal? It has been cruel to many of us – certainly it has been to me – but every year we choose: do circumstances make us, or reveal us? Do we choose to love and celebrate, or mourn and hurt?
I can’t speak for every year. I don’t know that my answer will be the same every time. But this year, this moment, with all my Santas placed carefully in their spots, one per room, and the ribbons tied, and the centerpieces set, I say, Christmas, old friend, welcome. And thank you for everything you’ve taught me.
May this holiday be kind to you. Or, better yet, may you be kind to yourself.