Christmas Eve For Real People
Christmas is my favorite holiday, in theory. What’s not to love about a celebration of life and love and birth and hope? No matter whether you view it as a religious or secular holiday; either way, I’ve always felt like it offered the perfect opportunity for peace on earth on earth, goodwill towards man, and also twinkly lights. (What can I say? I have a weakness for lights.) In practice, I think it’s time for me to admit that the reality of Christmas is often something very different.
The problem with a day when everyone’s supposed to be feeling happy and blessed is that if you’re not quite there, you feel even worse. What’s more, as parents, most of us feel this unspoken directive to make it the Very Best Day Ever!!!! for our kids. I read a post yesterday from a newly-divorced mom friend who’s about to spend her first Christmas away from her kids, thanks to custody arrangements. She knows there are worse things, knows the kids will be fine, knows this is her own sadness and not something she will show to them, but still. It’s just hard. I remember those Christmas Eve and Christmas morning swaps, as well as the associated pangs that the whole thing seemed to bring up about marriage and the concept of “happily ever after” and all of it. I’ve been splitting holidays with my kids’ dad for over a decade, and yes, it did eventually get easier. But it never gets easy.
One of my friends is taking a cruise with her family this Christmas, the first real vacation they’ve taken in the time I’ve known her (a long time). She has a large family, and the savings/logistics required in making this trip happen were no small matter. They flew to the departure port and discovered their vacation delayed a day by poor weather. It’s a minor inconvenience; my friend’s text this weekend started with “I feel silly whining, but….” It isn’t what she ended up saying, but the implication is, “but this was supposed to be our one, perfect, long-awaited vacation and it’s not going the way we thought it would.” She knows her family is blessed. Her family is also not one that indulges much (ever). How could she not feel like this was their one shot at a dream experience, being thwarted?
I have another friend who found herself widowed days before Christmas, last year. She is wondering if Christmas will ever feel like anything other than grief ever again. We all tell her that it will, over time. We believe it, even. But it will always feel a little like loss and helplessness and anger to her, too. My prayer for her is not for peace and happiness (though of course I hope that comes to her life), but for the balance to shift—for the happy feelings to edge out the others, that they will soften the edges of the memories and “if only we had…”s and render her future Christmases something she can enjoy and celebrate, even while acknowledging and honoring the past.
When my husband and I married, we agreed that Christmases would always involve a veritable carnival of travel around to his family, my family, the kids’ dad… we could always make it the best time of the year, with all the people we love most. True love may conquer all, but illness, injury, holiday tensions, family drama, and driving thousands of miles through the snow all took their toll. After several disastrous Christmas “celebrations” with extended family, we had to admit that staying home might be the wiser course. Even that didn’t staunch our flow of bizarre Christmas crises. And now every year my husband is missing his big-family Christmas, while I am usually just trying not to look like I’m gearing up for the next person to get sick or break or a bone or whatever. (We’re quite a pair.)
This past week has been difficult for our family, and no one was feeling much of the Christmas spirit. Our (fake) tree had been up, but undecorated, for over a week. All of the cookies I’d baked had been distributed to teachers. And when I ran out for milk and other essentials this weekend, my husband called out as I headed to the store: “Are we doing something for Christmas dinner?” A meal usually planned weeks in advance had been forgotten in favor of other, more pressing, issues.
Yesterday I all but dragged the kids into the family room and shoved ornaments into their hands. My husband turned on cheerful Christmas music. As teenaged eyes began to roll, we adults threatened to dance—with abandon, and with each other, even—if the Christmas spirit didn’t begin to show itself for this impromptu tree-decorating party. It was a slow start, but then the conversation flowed as I’d hoped it would: “Oh, I remember the year I got this one!” “When did we get these? Is this one mine or yours?” and so on. Memories, all of them; some treasured and others maybe less so, but all part of our shared history, testament to our family.
When the tree was complete, we stood back to admire it. Discussion turned to the appropriate Christmas movie to watch to cap off the night. I voted for A Christmas Story (I always do), but opposing votes were cast for Elf. Finally a tiebreaker was decreed in the form of Jingle All The Way, a Christmas movie none of us had seen before, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sinbad. (If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about it, allow me to confirm that it was campy and terrible and exactly what we needed.) We all went to bed late but better than we’d been for weeks, maybe in spite of ourselves.
Today: There will be baking. We need more Christmas cookies, obviously, and there is a Christmas Cake tradition from my husband’s family that must be obeyed. Our freaky southern weather has gone from mid-70s to an overnight plunge into the low 30s, so maybe we’ll even build a fire. It won’t be idyllic; the kids will bicker, I’ll realize I forgot something major that it’s too late to do or get, the dogs will get underfoot and/or bark when we’re trying to settle everyone down. Life goes on, both in ways we appreciate and don’t. So it’ll hardly be a Norman Rockwell scene, our Christmas, but it will be ours, and we have each other, no matter what. If Christmas isn’t about finding the love and moments of hope in a messy, complicated, sometimes cruel world, well, I don’t know what it is about.
Merry Christmas Eve, everyone.