The last few weeks have been a delightful buzz of activity, as the weather has gotten colder and we have actually had a few snowy days. Not snow days, mind — this is, after all, New York, where trains make it much more feasible to go to work on days that a car would never get you there. We have been operating under a fairly fractured family schedule, with My Beloved working the night shift, and our House Teenager (who is almost not-a-teenager now, yikes) working all sorts of crazy hours since he’s working retail in December. Yet, despite our inability to all be home simultaneously, we have managed to put up a tree, get it decorated and put some lights on the front of the house. That even happened as I was writing my big term paper at the end of the semester, which makes me particularly proud.
Sometime in the middle of that, it struck me that this is the first Christmas season that I’ve actually just enjoyed without making an express effort to do so. Usually this is a very challenging time of year for me, when I have to remind myself of my philosophy of conscious positivity pretty much daily. Both the holiday season and the sudden onset of cold weather contribute to this, and I do not have a great history of dealing well with either one. For many years, Christmas not only felt like an empty holiday for me, but almost like a personal attack as I took in all the media showing the perfect day with our perfect extended families in beautifully decorated perfect houses. My reality was more typically a day spent with myself or a friend, because my relatives were all far away, having their Christmas celebrations together. Before I moved to New York, I would sometimes spend it with my mom, but that had its own challenges. She dealt with the season little better than I did, between her own conflicted feelings about family and her depression, and my time spent with her was always filled with criticism. Christmas has always been associated with the sense that I just couldn’t do it right. I have a picture of her from my 21st Christmas, where she’s pointing at a price tag that I left on a present that I gave her. I remember this picture better than any other picture that I have of her, because so often that is what our relationship felt like. Look at your mistakes.
I regret so much that we didn’t have more years together, because our relationship looked like it was going to improve. She died so young and so suddenly that I’ll never know. And I regret that my main memory of her involvement in my adult life was that I never did things to her satisfaction. I often get feedback from even my closest friends that I do things too well — that I have a superhuman ability of life accomplishment — and I sometimes wonder how much of it stems from never being good enough for the two people who were supposed to always accept my failure. I suspect that most overachievers have a similar understanding; that we must always be doing more because what we have done can never really be enough. If we’ve managed to accomplish the thing, then it must have been too easy to be meaningful. I got a 97% in the class I took this last semester — instead of being proud of that, I thought, “Well, the professor must be an easy grader.” An A, of course, was the bare minimum, but scoring so highly must have been a fluke. It is not actually very satisfying.
So I keep throwing myself against new challenges, hoping to find that one that some day will mean that I have done enough. I’m sure you can see how the Christmas madness just feeds into that — the one thing that you’re not supposed to have on Christmas is an empty house. To not be surrounded by your loving extended family on Christmas means you’ve failed — and I’ve only ever been around my extended family on Christmas twice in my life.
People with childhood backgrounds like mine have to make their own families. We make them from friends, largely, though I’ve been blessed to be able to get to know both sides of my family better now that I’m an adult. Neither of my parents made it much of a priority for me to spend time with my relations, who all lived at least half a country away, and I didn’t have the sort of growing up experiences with my cousins and grandparents that so many people do. Christmas, of course, enhanced that isolation, as I was often shuttled from my mom’s house to my dad’s house to have two different lonely celebrations. Yet some of my fondest memories of my mom are from when I was little and we would prepare for Christmas. I remember making ornaments out of construction paper, decorating the tree, baking cookies for Santa. I still put out the Yule log every year that we bought when I was fourteen — and each time I pull it out of its storage box, I think about that day in the mall, trying to convince her that we needed it– and then the glee when she decided that she would buy it for me. I put up her miniature tree and put on the reindeer antlers that belonged to her. All of these memories, at last, have no sting at all, because now I have made my own family, which is now just an augmentation to my blood family that I have come to get to know.
This year my house will not be perfect. Our decorations aren’t as nice as they’ve been in some years past. I won’t have cookies baked, punch made or carols sung. But I will take my little family to two different households of friends on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day and celebrate the connections that I’ve created in my life, which are giving this holiday new meaning. It took a long time to drop my baggage, but I think I could maybe even come to love Christmas.
But we’ll just leave that one for next year.