A Christmas Story: Changing Holiday Traditions

holiday traditions

A Christmas Paradox

This is a tricky time of year. For many, it is a time of joyful reunions, happy anticipation, and sweet hoiday traditions. For others, it is a time of stark inequality, veiled depression, and complicated family dynamics. We all have demons buried deep within us, and for some reason they seem to rise to the surface during the Christmas season when there is a general expectation of, if not joyousness, at least happiness.

You are supposed to be excited about the holidays and your family holiday traditions. You are supposed to look forward to Christmas. It almost feels like there is something wrong with you if you don’t. I know you’ve felt it. I’ve felt it, too. Life is complicated. We are complicated, as human beings, and we should be allowed to have our own experience, even if it doesn’t jive with the perceived notion of how we are supposed to feel.

I have had my share of rough times, and have some ambivalent feelings about the holidays and my family holiday traditions. Still, I yearn to embrace and love them like my mother did when I was a child so that much like I did back then, my son can enjoy Christmas too.

This year, I’ve decided to unearth my holiday skeletons, explore with the Spirit of  Christmas Past past and come up with some ideas for overcoming the not so uncommon holiday blues. I Have a Christmas Problem

holiday traditions

There is too much to deal with.

A while ago I wrote about my packing problem. My Christmas problem is similar, I think. I suffer from an overabundance of…well, an overabundance. You might be saying, “That’s not a problem, that’s just the spirit of Christmas!” True enough. Especially in this country. But I am, generally speaking, against that idea. I prefer the spirit that drives us to open our hearts, help our fellow man, and generally try to make the world a better place. That is, I believe, the true spirit of Christmas.

I always start off the season with a general sense of distaste at the blatant commercialism; an irritation with crowds and general excess. I resolve well in advance that, I won’t get sucked into it again this year. I make online donations to worthy organizations like Heifer, Doctors Without Borders, and Habitat for Humanity. I put them in the names of my adult relatives, telling myself that will reduce my own needless consumption.

Changing the dialogue.

I start a dialogue early with my son, trying to prepare him to receive fewer presents than expected Christmas morning. Each year I talk about the people who have less than us. I admonish him for the excess of toys he already has. I encourage him to give some away to those less fortunate, in anticipation of Santa’s offerings. I tell him we don’t have a lot of extra money to spend on unnecessary toys and gifts this Christmas. I say that experience is more important than gifts.

This year, we took a trip to Disneyland two weeks before Christmas. It was really a gift from his Aunt and Uncle, but we had to pay for airfare and food and other expenses, of course. We even pitched in on an expensive Lego set at the park, warning him that we were going to put it under the tree as his main Christmas present. That was it. That was supposed to be Christmas. Seems more than sufficient, right? A fantastic experience, right? Experiential Christmas – my ideal. But, no.

holiday traditions

Family holiday traditions.

This year, as with each of the past 7 years or so, as Christmas Eve approaches, I become seized with this irresistible urge to buy things. I am grocery shopping, and reminded that I need stocking stuffers. I am passing by Macy’s, and remember I need something for my Mother-in-Law, or Sister-in-Law. I start thinking about how the tree will look, with no prettily-wrapped presents underneath it. What will I do Christmas Eve, if I don’t have to stay up all night wrapping presents?

And therein lies the rub. People talk about Christmas Traditions this time of year, of course. It’s a big deal for most people. My son, Jack, even had to do a speech on it for his 3rd grade class. Our Christmas Tradition was PRESENTS. Lots and lots of PRESENTS. My mother’s love language was gift-giving, and there was no better time for her to express that love than at Christmas. She was a last-minute shopper, reveling in the frantic pace and gaudy exhibitionism of holiday shopping.

She was also a last-minute wrapper, being a single, working mother. Every Christmas Eve, my mom would stay up all night, drinking and wrapping gifts and Making Christmas. When I reached an age when I could stay up with her, it was like a rite of passage. Like she was passing on her ancient knowledge.

I remember the first Christmas I was home from college. Not only was I invited to stay up with her after my little brother went to bed, but she also made me one of her special eggnogs while we were wrapping. It was like reaching Christmas Nirvana. And, on Christmas morning, a Bloody Mary! I had reached enlightenment.

holiday traditions

Breaking tradition.

Drinking and presents, our holiday Traditions. There were others, of course, but each of them revolved around drinking or presents in some way. The point is, Christmas is all wrapped up in presents somehow, in my mind, and without them it just doesn’t seem like Christmas. And yet, I’ve evolved into an adult that resents such impulses in myself, and does not want to encourage them in my child.

I had an epiphone this year (as I was impulsively buying presents for everyone in my life who doesn’t need them): Maybe Christmas Tradition is the problem. We make this big deal about tradition, and all the joy it brings. But, what I think, is that for a lot of people, it can also bring sadness. A lot of sadness.

Seasonal depression.

My mom loved Christmas more than any other holiday (and she LOVED holidays). Everything about Christmas reminds me of her, from the tangled strings of lights I don’t have time to put up, to the batches of fudge I can’t locate the recipe for. I struggle every year to emulate my mother, and give my son the sort of overindulgent Christmas I remember from my youth; and, every year, I feel woefully inferior. Worse than that is the fact that my mother isn’t even here to show me up.

No matter how much money I spend, there never seem to be enough packages to keep me up all night wrapping. No matter how many boxes of decorations I amass, our house never seems as festive as my mom’s was. And, no matter how much I throw myself into the celebrations of those around me, I can never shake the feeling of melancholy that overwhelms me this time of year. I work and work to make others happy, because that usually would make me happy. But I’m still sad.

The fact is, my mom was a great Santa, and she made Christmas a magical time for us. But following her traditions for the last 7 years, since her death, has only made Christmas an added weight to bear. And, if following a tradition brings more pain than joy, more shame than satisfaction, is it healthy to continue those traditions? I think the answer is clearly NO. Why do we continue to force-feed ourselves on these unhealthy traditions? Maybe we need some new ones.

holiday traditions

All I want for Christmas is a new holiday tradition.

I’ve tried (and failed) to make my own traditions, but that doesn’t mean I won’t keep trying. I have new ideas each year, and each year I get sucked into the old, presents-oriented traditions. Each year I try to find my mom in Christmas, and fail, and am disappointed yet again.

I realize there are others out there who dread Christmas for their own reasons. It is a complicated holiday, filled with a lifetime of expectations and disappointments. Though I envy people who can just sit back and enjoy the holidays, I tend to think there are more people like myself. People pretending to enjoy them, even trying to enjoy them, but failing spectacularly.

Still, I am determined to break these damaging habits. I want to love Christmas again. I want my son to love Christmas. I don’t want him associating it with that time when Mom is sad.

holiday traditions

6 ideas for new holiday traditions.

So, here are my ideas for some new holiday traditions. Maybe you have some, too. Maybe we should test them out. I mean, traditions have to start someplace, right?

  1. Destination Christmas:  This one is simple – travel for the holidays. We sort of tested it out this year, with our trip to Disneyland. But, what I realized is that going outside of the actual holiday window doesn’t help with my Christmas Problem. I need to be gone on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. I need to actually celebrate the holiday someplace else. Otherwise, I still feel the need to shop. And spend. And find my mom.
  2. A Season of Giving:  I talked about this concept in my Gift Guide. Basically, instead of buying gifts for people, donate toward some worthy cause for them. Or, if you need some item to present them with (or wrap up), purchase from companies committed to giving back. Make sure you pass along all the information associated with your gift, so they can appreciate the impact is has.
  3. Your Presence is a Gift:  One Christmas, when I was separated from my first husband, my younger brother and I found ourselves alone at Christmas. Feeling disconnected, and wanting to find some joy, we visited the local retirement home. We lived in a very small town at the time (~5,000 people), and there was only one. We went room-to-room with candy canes, wearing Santa hats. It was awkward at first, but it turned out to be both uplifting and heartwarming. Residents who were grumpy and dismissive at first, were thanking us with tears in their eyes as we left. There are lots of places where people feel detached and forgotten during the holidays. Visit one of them. Take candy canes.
  4. Face Your Ghosts:  My mother was cremated after she died. (I still have most of the ashes.) Most times, I appreciate the simplicity and practicality of cremation. But, during the holidays, on her birthday, or when I’m feeling particularly low, I wish I had a place to go visit her. If your seasonal depression is connected to the loss of a loved one, go visit them. And, I don’t just mean do a walk-by with a bunch of half-wilted flowers. Visit them. If you’re sad on Christmas day, spend the day in the cemetery. I love cemeteries – they are very peaceful. Take a picnic lunch, a nice blanket and a bottle of wine. Clean up the gravesite – sweep off the leaves, straighten the headstone. Take your family. Talk and laugh. Let the kids play around the grave. Let your loved one in on the joy, and you might just find some yourself.
  5. Escape the Masses:  John Muir said “Into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” Sometimes nature can provide us the peace we can’t find within ourselves. One tradition I’ve been relatively successful at establishing with my family is our Christmas Walk. I’d call it a Christmas Hike but we’re not always that ambitious. Regardless, we make it a priority to get out sometime during the day and move our bodies, and I find that it really helps my overall mood and sense of peace.
  6. Don’t Forget Your Friends:  I rely on my friends a lot during the holidays. As much as I dearly love my family, they come connected with all the joyous and tragic memories of my youth. As much as I love being with them on Christmas, their presence makes my mom’s absence that much more poignant. Whether your family is the source of your holiday stress, or just another trigger, this is a time when friends can be a real balm to the soul. Use them. They’ll understand – they might even need you, too. You never know what someone else is struggling with. Reach out. Take hold. Take heart.

Tonight is the night. I have a room full of stuff to stuff into stockings, and presents to put under the tree. It probably won’t be an all-nighter, but I’ll stretch it out as long as I can. But, maybe next year I’ll try something different.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

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