A friend of mine whose had some pretty sad experiences over the holidays, ranging from ending her marriage one year to losing her mother to cancer another, told me recently she was making her home into a “holiday-free zone.” “No turkeys, Christmas trees, or mistletoe are getting into this house,” she proclaimed.
I regret to say I fully understand. I haven’t exactly had the best run on Thanksgiving/Christmas seasons myself. Long married to a man who eschewed much celebration of Christmas because it reminded him too much of being tugged back and forth between divorced parents as a child and having long been a member of a dysfunctional family extraordinaire (i.e. relatives who can sit at the same dinner table for an hour or more and never make eye contact much less speak), the holidays often seem to me more like something to “get through” than to enjoy.
The last couple of years I’ve found creative ways to escape the holidays. I spent Thanksgiving 2011 in Venice, Italy, where there was not a sign anywhere that Americans across the Atlantic were gathering around extended dining room tables carving succulent birds and spooning cranberries onto the fine china that’s pulled out only twice a year. And Christmas 2012, I was so desperate to escape family drama, I opted for taking my daughter to Disney World as an excuse for not showing up to the holiday dinner table.
So far my daughter hasn’t minded…or at least hasn’t noticed. But I wonder sometimes if that’s because she just hasn’t had much experience with the Norman Rockwell version of Christmas. And honestly, do any of us? At least since passing the age of 12 when we started to notice that maybe our aunts and uncles really weren’t that fond of one another and that Grandma so-and-so hadn’t spoken to her son’s wife in five years?
Another friend has troubles at Christmas because her mother can’t bear to be in the same room with her father. They are divorced but can’t make nice even for a day. And honestly, why should they have to? How is it the holidays have become this obligatory family-free-for-all, where if the relatives aren’t engaging in shouting matches over some 20-year-old spat, they are at least sitting there sullenly wishing they were home instead watching football or reading a good book?
I have some acquaintances who hold what they term “a dysfunctional Thanksgiving.” It’s a gathering of friends, not family, over a prodigious feast and is open to anyone who would rather be there than at a family dinner table. Not surprisingly, it draws quite a crowd.
I haven’t decided yet how I’m going to establish my own version of a “holiday-free zone” this year. Granted I’ve already started putting up a few Christmas wreaths here and there (though I’m truly debating whether or not to drag the 9 ft. tall artificial fir tree out of the basement and spend 6 hours decorating it while stepping precariously from step ladder to step ladder).
I might just send my daughter off to spend Thanksgiving with her father’s dysfunctional family and curl up in front of the fire with a cup of hot cocoa and a good book. As for Christmas, I found myself eyeing some winter trips to Austria and Germany that, as luck would have it, fall right over December 25.
And in an effort to avoid the over-the-top Christmas cheer already showing up in shopping malls and department stores, I think I’ve figured out a way to order all my gifts online and have them delivered to my doorstep…or someone else’s. Heck, with any luck, I might even be able to avoid wrapping paper, ribbons, and Scotch tape.
Though to be quite honest, it’s not the decorations that get to me so much or even the hours and hours of gift wrapping. It’s the childhood memories of traditions that will never be again that often make my Christmas blue.
I know my grandmother, who now lives in a nursing home and is suffering from Alzheimer’s, will no longer oversee my creation of Lemon Cloud. Nor will I ever watch her and my mother roll out dough for flatbread and lefse anymore. Dad and I will never sit together competing over who can make the most elaborate bow to plunk on a gift, and I’ll never climb into bed with my giggling cousins and store contraband soda pop in frosted bedroom windows for midnight snack.
And in the midst of all that loss, I struggle with how to shape the holidays for my daughter, wondering if I would even be doing her any favors by trying to recreate the holidays I thought I knew as a child, holidays where my parents and grandparents may have felt just as displaced as I do now.
Perhaps, in the end, it’s better to scoop her off on a Christmas Caribbean vacation or to spend Thanksgiving reading books in front of the fire. These are traditions that can keep going and going, that don’t require loads of extended family, that don’t rely on rituals that will die when the grandparents die, and where the holiday décor and baking isn’t associated with a sense of loss.
Because I don’t want Heidi feeling one day, as I do now, that January 2 cannot get here fast enough. No, I want her to feel confident in celebrating the joys of the season without the guilt-ridden obligations of family or the sense that her life is somehow inadequate if it doesn’t include a spouse, two kids, and a dog.