I don’t know why, but it always seems like the words come to me in the wintertime. Specifically, around the holidays, when I am in that unholy pocket between nostalgic melancholy and overwhelming dread for the future–sprinkled with a little topping of seasonal depression.
What is it about these cloying Decembers that seem to have so much potential for memory-making, hearth-warming harvest-joy pumpkin-spiced wool-socked carol-singing sepia-toned photographs to string on the mantel with ribbon next to the pine-scented Christmas tree? You know, part of that image makes me wane with nausea and the other is like, “God I love Rudolf.”
I actually like Christmas. The “holiday season” if you will. I enjoy the baking of cookies and saccharin songs, how everything is cinnamon scented in the grocery store. I try to ignore the existence of traditions like Black Friday and the lilted accusations when someone admits to being a delayed shopper who leaves all gift-buying to the 23rd (ahem, me!). My fiance–excuse me let me just get used to typing out that word, nope–hates Christmas. The season, the joy, all the hearty mirthful cheer. He establishes rules that we cannot watch holiday movies until at least December 1st, must save the classics for later in the month, cannot listen to the songs until appropriately celebratory and cannot stalk outside of the neighbor’s traditionally well-decorated house of Christmasvomit. But he’s a good sport. He knows that this time of year is many-layered for all of us, and he puts up with my need to be merry with a rather endearing Scrooge-like quality that ultimately gives in.
He, and others, have asked why I indulge so in this need to be jolly. I have scanned through my mental Rolodex of Christmas-past and have not really found any viable excuse. Thinking back, I’ve been through a lot of fucked up shit around this time of year. Having been an ongoing purveyor of shitty childhoods, it’s not like Christmastime was the worst time of the year, considering most of it was pretty bad, but there are memorably awful things: my mother being very sick with ovarian cancer is probably the most tangibly traumatic childhood Christmas–though strangely the most traditional. The tree that year was enormous and real, bombarded to the point of tipping with finely wrapped gifts. I recall that year we went to Midnight Mass, something that has never happened before or since, and stayed up half the night drinking cocoa and eating cookies, me on a squeaky violin carving out a painful rendition of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”. That was the year that I turned 8, and knowing that there was a symbol behind this particular Christmas, that if Mom didn’t make it we would at least have this to hold onto, I was maybe naive enough to let these just be a series of good days as opposed to the universal “fuck you” it was meant to be. But it turned out that my mother healed gloriously and my child-self considered this a Christmas miracle. This was, at once, the best and worst Christmas of my life. I was a needy, vulnerable little kid, often compulsive in devotion to symbols and traditions–strange little superstitions that if things didn’t go exactly as I imagined them or planned, the very demise of humanity would be totally on me. I think from then on, I sort of convinced myself that if Christmas didn’t stand for something, didn’t represent everything we’re told it’s supposed to, my life would utterly fall apart, and poof, Cinderella at midnight, one shoe on and covered in pumpkin guts.
An eternally optimistic little neurotic, life basically did continue to fall apart and I’d keep being like, “Well thank baby Jesus that Christmas miracles are still a thing.” My sister, more often than not, ruined every other viable childhood Christmas–by stealing things from other people and presenting them as gifts; having a huge episode that necessitated that we not see other family or friends and stay home sullen or split up; having a tantrum that invoked her need for every gift she didn’t get; or just straight up not showing up because she’d run away a few days earlier or something. Meanwhile, I’d be gleefully rifling through my stocking all “Fa la la la la!” and thinking to myself “Don’t you dare fuck this up with your own feelings. KEEP IT PERFECT.” Not to mention that both times my parents split was around the holidays, that my dad’s mood on Christmas was always that of a deflated balloon, that my mother, by association would throw up her hands and often just say “fuck it” closing herself in her bedroom while the rest of us halfheartedly played with whatever new gadget we’d asked for and ultimately just ignore each other. Not your typical holly jollies.
Add to my weird bizarre Christmas litany the fact that my birthday is December 20th, which is basically just not acknowledged for the mere fact that people are broke and when you’re a kid with a Christmas birthday that shit gets fused and it’s just what happens so suck it up. But I was all deranged, walking around and thinking that my birthday was made extra special with all the glee of Noel rubbing off on everything and everyone and how lucky was I that my birthday parties so often got canceled because of inclement weather. How sweet of you universe, to offer up a white Christmas just in time for the occasion of my birth? While literally everyone around me was rolling their eyes and counting down the days until all that candy cane bullshit was just another bad memory, I’d be praying for time to slow itself down just a little bit so that I could make it last that much longer. Advent Calendars, while delicious, seemed a bit too much like rushing the inevitable. Time goes fast enough already, why not just eat all that chocolate at once come Christmas?
Then, the years that proceeded my sister and father’s split from the family was usually just Mom and I tiptoeing around our mutual loneliness and acting like the last-minute necessities we could afford were prized vessels: “How did you know I was running out of paper towels?! Multi-vitamins?!?!? You shouldn’t have! Everything I’ve always wanted.” As I’ve gotten older, these sort of intimate Christmas’s, whether held at her house or my apartment, became these awkward little races to see which one of us could wrap up the day faster and return home to our own celebrated traditions, solitary with our televisions, leftovers, and pets. I’d still be wearing red and green pajamas and tearing up over the end of Home Alone.
Now that I am a full-blown nester, the holidays more revolve around making sure that my own need for spiritedness is satisfied by small things like an adequate Christmas tree that the cat won’t be able to destroy, an appropriately festive mantel, jingly bells on the doorknobs…you know, things that would basically make me vom any other time of the year. I am not a traditionalist by any measure, and more often than not I am a sarcastic snob who basically craps on all middle class ritualistic behavior and yet I’m like, “Ooh ooh! The Santa Clause is on! DON’T YOU DARE SHUT OFF THAT CINEMATIC GENIUS!”
And yet, things are still hard. I am still me, even on Christmas. I am still prone to those inexhaustible winter blues, the inevitable mess my life becomes while trying to “be healthy” this time of year, the rush of gut-wrench that lands like a mace in my bowels when using the “heart” reaction on every happy Facebook family photo, knowing that my own broken family will never pose for any such picture, unable to even mentally gather the last Christmas I spent with my sister some distant eon ago. As a little kid, rifling through the recycled wrapping paper, trying to ignore the already let-down clamor of those sharing space around me, I’d imagine how I’d build my own holidays as an adult and funnel every iota of all that magic precocious child yearning into a future with eggnog and a real family dinner where everyone sat down in one place. The very idea of this fantasy was enough to shut out the reality that my kid-self refused to face. When we’d return to school after the holidays, my “What I did over Christmas Break” essay was always overly-enthusiastic and full of straight-up lies. More often than not I was begging various friends to let me sleep over their houses so I could revel in whatever their families did and pretend I belonged in their Christmas card-stock.
What is both comforting and tragic to my adult self, in retrospect, is the truth. Being a therapist around the holidays is perhaps one of the more perspective-building experiences I’ve ever had. There doesn’t seem to be a single person I’ve met with in the last month who can’t match me in the failed holiday department. The stories are one in the same that begin with hopeful reverie and end with Santa Claus being the joke you cried about after everyone else went to bed. No one kissed her under the mistletoe. The turkey was burnt. The presents were discarded and only the boxes were played with. Someone died on Christmas eve. Everyone got drunk and someone said something awful. Uncle Addict didn’t showed up and his deleterious behavior ruined the whole fucking night. And these are the typical stories we all know. They only get worse. They only land with more tears. I have never had more weeping clients keel over in my office than I have had in the last two weeks.
One of my clients, re-hashing a particularly brutal holiday anecdote, tried to catch her breath between sobs. “I just want it to be over,” she heaved. “It’s the most terrible time of the year.” I had to do my very best not to set her statement to music in my head and found myself asking, a perhaps naive and maybe even insulting question. “Do you ever think it will be different?” She just sort of looked at me, continuing to cry and blow her nose: “What do you mean?” The question, in the moment, was more for me than it was for her. Does continuing to be hopeful this time of year make me an idiot? Or is it sort of lovely that I still so sincerely want for this to be true? I don’t know the answer.
And maybe that’s where I’m coming from here. No more the terminally sanguine child unwilling to see all the darkness and potential for let-down this season seems so wholly to represent, but the possibility that this shitty, damaging, joyless symbol of every spent expectation could be made better just by turning it into something different. A languishing of conjecture perhaps, a throw your hands in the air and say fuck-it kind of thing, a “let’s ditch the turkey and order take-out” testament to doing whatever feels right and good and downright merry in the face of every broiling negative that trolls all potential for joy this time of year. Maybe, for some, it means not acknowledging the day at all–and for this to be fine.
For me, it still looks like a thousand cookie cut-outs shaped like reindeer and all the movies posing what-if sentiments to my jaded little child-mind. What if we all got along for a change this year? What if we all actually wanted to be here in this moment? What if we let this day pass uneventfully and lived the rest of our lives trying to maintain some semblance of meaningful or thankful without stupid fucking Amy Schumer and her relentless Old Navy cacophony of hell?
In the meantime, I validate all the “Fuck Christmas” hate speeches that tirade themselves through my office all day, and sometimes for camaraderie’s sake I throw in a “Yeah, totally” and then I go home, take the long way around the block so I can visit the Christmas house, plug in the fat little tree leaning sideways against the wall, straighten the couple of cards we have decorating the mantel and cue up the Muppet Christmas Carol with not only hope, but a dose of resignation, too. Fuck it, it’s Christmas. God Bless us Everyone.
(Did I mention, I’m a Jew? Oh yeah, I’m a Jew. We’ll get to that next year.)