'Tis the Season

The day after Halloween, I caught myself asking if it was too early to put up Christmas lights. It got me wondering where this impatience stems from. I’m not overzealous about Christmas in the traditional sense. In fact, the traditional sense has always eluded me. Possessing Christmas traditions would imply that I have a clear-cut set of ideas about what to expect for that day of the year, some thread of shared ritual running through each of my three decade’s worth. In reality, my Christmas experiences are a hodgepodge of extremely different occurrences and, with each, widely ranging emotional responses.

Some of the worst days of my life have fallen on December 25th, but also some of the best. And many have floated by without leaving much of an imprint at all. I spent one, at age 11, in a women’s shelter hiding from an abusive stepdad, scared, ashamed and sad. I spent another, at age 26, getting proposed to by the man I met 2 weeks prior (and accepting), and feeling nothing but pure joy.

As a child, when I thought of Christmas in the way I felt I was supposed to think of Christmas, I imagined a child waking up in the bedroom he’ll sleep in from birth to high school graduation, opening presents in pajamas with a nuclear family complete with Mom, Dad, 1.5 siblings and a dog, with the rest of the day spent snacking and laughing in red and green sweaters by the fire while snow falls outside, culminating in sitting around a home-cooked feast. Carols are sung. Cocoa is sipped. And to all a goodnight.

Clearly, this is not always the case. This basic social unit itself is an anomaly, and if a family does exist as such, it’s quite possibly wrought with underlying tensions, even if those skeletons are neatly tucked away in a closet. But for a child, it’s hard to decipher how things should be, and even harder not to compare and notice how they’re not that way at all. Christmas, more than any other day, tended to bring these comparisons to the foreground.

The first Christmas I remember was when I was 4. Ironically, the memory I have falls fairly neatly into the category of the aforementioned scenario. I woke up and went to the living room to see a giant Fisher-Price kitchen in front of a lit-up tree. I remember excitement and happiness. That’s all I remember, and within that next year my parents divorced, I acquired an alcoholic stepdad, and we moved. The rest of my childhood Christmases were generally in the vein of the “broken home” stereotype.

We spent the day with the court-designated parent, subject to strict pick-ups and drop-offs. Couple that with moving 7 times over the next few years and the very idea of “waking up in your room” was rendered a fantasy. I recall complying with certain holiday customs: I’m pretty sure there was a tree every year, and a few gifts. But overall, the day just seemed doomed to fall sadly short of the superficial standards laid out for it.

A good amount of anxiety, guilt and confusion comes along with being torn between loyalties, thrown into the roles of mediator, bargaining chip, even hostage. In a nutshell, I remember witnessing a lot of unbridled animosity and reckless drama. The malaise this leads to, I found, leaves children with two options: acting out or turning inward. I opted for the latter, to the extreme. A depressive introvert spends a lot of time brooding, and Christmas always seemed to magnify those sensitivities. In short, I wanted to love Christmas, but I usually hated Christmas.

My teen years gave way to stark independence and bitter angst, as can be pretty safely expected for many a teenager. A few Christmases around this time evoked resentment, anger and depression, while others were just fine, but none could have been likened to walking in a wonderland.

And then, moving into my twenties, Christmases were those of low expectations, and therefore no pressure. I enjoyed that. As I started seeing firsthand how other families really operated, I appreciated the upsides to mine. There were no guilt-trips for visits, no scoreboards for gift-giving. I was never worried about where I’d be or what I’d be doing on December 25th, and it worked out perfectly for an itinerant and autonomous young adult.

So now I’m all grown up, and I love Christmas lights, Christmas songs, giant meals made from scratch, falling leaves and/or snow, boxes wrapped in colorful paper. I just love Christmas. I just don’t know why. Being an adult, I’m sure, has something to do with it. Being a parent has even more. Last year, I watched my baby chew on the wrapping paper, then the box, and then whatever was in the box, and was filled with happiness. I have a strong desire to give her a Christmas experience that she can count on being wonderful every year. There are plenty of the cultural norms of the day that she can do without. I’m hoping I can build up in her a strong immunity to consumerism. I want her to know that the day can be perfect without adhering to the ideals of the model Christmas. Basically, I want her to know that she’s loved, that she will never be alone, and that she should enjoy and appreciate this day along with the 364 others every year. Christmas is just a good opportunity to be reminded of that. Also, lights are pretty.

I suppose I don’t need to figure out why I love Christmas. I do, however, need to figure out a place to put a tree where my now-toddler won’t climb it, topple it, and set it aflame.

Anyway, merry early Christmas, everyone, whatever that means to you.