Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Point of Christmas

Christmas was my Dad's favorite holiday. He was the one who put up the tree, lit up the house and made sure everyone was happy. He played Santa. He carefully purchased and wrapped all of the presents. He encouraged us to attend Christmas Eve services and he loved the carols and hymns. He was more interested in giving and seeing everyone's faces light up than he was in receiving. He would repeatedly say "All I want for Christmas is for everyone to be happy."

Mother insisted upon gathering everyone together on Thanksgiving and Christmas--she placed such importance on gathering that anyone who couldn't make it felt terribly guilty (even if the reasons were valid). She was the glue that held this family together. Going to my sister's for Christmas was mandatory; coming to their house for Thanksgiving was mandatory. Visiting for Easter was sort of mandatory but not as important.

They're both gone now. They both left this mortal coil in 2006. The first set of holidays without them was surreal—there had been holidays when someone was absent; there were a couple of times I went to my sister's by myself, so it wasn't completely new.

This year is different.

This year, it's real.

This year, it's not a fluke that we aren't all together, it's not a fluke that my parents aren't with us. It's reality. They are gone. For this and every other holiday in the future, in the next 40 or so years I hopefully have left on this planet, my parents will not be a part of the festivities.


This year, it's sinking in.

Thanksgiving isn't as difficult because it is one day, it is about food, it is more flexible. Spending it with friends is nice.

Christmas, on the other hand, is torture.

Christmas is a holiday for which most people spend an entire month gearing up (some spend the entire year), on which enormous emphasis is placed, and bears overwhelming ramifications in the emotional/mental realms. It carries extraordinary significance. One can choose to "ignore" Valentine's Day, Easter, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving and New Year's, but one cannot get away from Christmas.

Christmas is just plain everywhere. Every advertisement has a red and green happy jolly theme. It's Happy Honduh Days. Santa's image is plastered all over the place (shouldn't it be Jesus?). Radio stations switch formats for the month. Any store you enter has Xmas Muzak blasting through the halls. Christmas just oozes out of the woodwork onto the streets and into your face.

There is no such thing as Thanksgiving music. Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor Day are billed as BBQ party fests. Those holidays are also distinctly American. Halloween is a fun kids holiday with orange and black. Valentine's Day is for lovers. New Year's is basically a booze fest, an excuse to buy a new calendar, and a day to resolve to make changes that are promptly forgotten about the other 364 days.

But Christmas... it's for the WORLD. (Yes, there is Hannukah, Kwanzaa and other religious fests occurring simultaneously, hence the "ban the HO" and the "Holiday/Family Tree" controversy, but we all know that the common assumption is that this is, was and always will be viewed as "Christmas" Season.) They light trees in Russia. Children in Australia look forward to Santa's arrival as eagerly as children in Bulgaria, the US, China, you name it. Churches celebrate the birth of Jesus globally. Everywhere, all around this planet, the perspective is family, religion, happiness, togetherness, kids, presents.

I can't seem to get away from it. The general feeling is if you opt not to put up a tree, lights or other display, then you are Bah Humbug and Something Is Wrong With You (unless you can claim religious differences).

Well, I'm not Bah Humbug. I still love Christmas. I just can't bear to celebrate it again. Yet. It's too connected with my parents. I see a tree in a window lit with a certain color combination of lights, and it slices into my heart because it reminds me of Dad's trees. I enter a store, I hear "Silver Bells" (my grandma's favorite carol) and I silently say to the Universe, "are ya trying to kill me?" and I have to go down an empty aisle and refocus until the tears that automatically sprung to my eyes have abated. Or "I'll Be Home For Christmas" or "Home for the Holidays"—which of course they never will be again. I can't watch commercials because they promote the familyness of it all, the sappy, saccharine sentimentality of homecoming and togetherness. And it just plain hurts like hell to realize that it has been lost to me forever. Christmas as I know it, knew it for 42 years, is gone. Over.

What nobody ever bothers to tell you is that losing your parents (or husband or kid or anyone else of significance) isn't just something that happens one day and then you get three days off for grieving and it's over with. Nobody ever tells you that losing your parents (or etc) is EVERY DAY. Nobody warns you that it will spring up unannounced in the most unexpected places at the most inopportune times. They die, you live, and you live with the changes in every activity, every thought, every holiday, every event, every moment in time because it is completely different. Unless of course you weren't close to them like I was.

Maybe those people are luckier. It's hard to say; because what I've had and lost, they've never had the chance to experience and maybe they missed out.

Whatever. My bond with mine was so strong that it permeated every aspect of my life, and life without them is tantamount to having lost a couple of limbs. It hurts. Far deeper and far more significantly than I ever imagined it would.

This year, because of the residual feelings and underlying resentments that developed during my parents' illnesses and following their deaths and the estate nonsense, the idea of gathering feels uncomfortable to me. The anticipation of warmth in the embrace of my loved ones is absent. Instead, I suspect tension and treading eggshells would be the primary atmosphere, coupled with watching words and carefully avoiding certain subjects. I ask you: would you want to attend a festivity which would require being on guard the entire time?

It doesn't help that my sister has moved (finally). Even the familiarity of going over the river and through the woods to my sister's old farmhouse in rural PA is gone. Now, the festivities are held at her younger daughter's house and includes grandchildren. There is no transitional bleedover. There was the time period of Christmas at the old farmhouse with me, sister, parents, and sister's daughters/hubbys, then Christmas in the nursing home in 2005, then Christmas at the younger niece's house with brand new grandchildren and no parents. It's that distinct, the break. My parents never got to spend even one holiday with their great-grandkids.

This year, I have no inclination to buy gifts. This year, because of the overwhelming amount of "stuff" I've been saddled with, I have no interest in obtaining MORE stuff, especially—no offense—stuff purchased by people who only sort of know me (therefore its usefulness to my life is questionable and since I only have room for incoming stuff of vital importance...) This year, we (meaning my remaining family members and myself) are all in that financial limbo before the floodgates open (my sister and I) or are flat broke due to circumstances and/or poor choices (my sister and her daughters)—so why "waste" money on gifts for each other?

Ah, to meet expectations. But... whose expectations? Mine? Theirs? Real or imagined?

This year, it seems pointless to me somehow to celebrate Christmas. Christmas in the sense of commercialism and family gatherings seems pointless without my parents' presence. I think I did it for them and because of them. I wonder if maybe we all did. I wonder if left to our own devices, to make our own choices, to opt out, if we would opt out? If we didn't feel this sense of obligation to our parents' expectations and wishes, would we even bother?

I think that for me, the best thing would be to ignore the commercialism. Bypass the expectations of gifts, of enforced family togetherness, of creating That Perfect Holiday. Refocus my vision on the true meaning of Christmas, the one that gets lost in the materialistic spendfest: the birth of a Saviour, the gratitude for all of the blessings we have received and are about to receive, and the promise of Peace On Earth, Goodwill Toward Men. Celebrate quietly, go to church for a change, and bask in my thankfulness for all that I have and in the glory of God.

Maybe I will find there a renewed sense of spirit, and maybe someday I will once again feel that anticipation. Maybe one day I will be blessed with the presence of someone special in my life again, and be able to build my own family and rediscover a reason to celebrate. Maybe not this year, but someday in the future, I'll be able to look at a tree that is lit with a certain color combination and smile... and remember my Dad's trees with happiness and gratitude and without immediate tears, and to realize that giving myself over to the Christmas celebration DOES have a point, even in the absence of my parents or the family that they left behind.

May you all experience much joy and be blessed during this holiday season. Love your family and say a prayer of thanks if those you love deepest are still among you and able to be with you. Remember that it's not about the gifts, or the tree, or how clean or well-decorated the house is: it's about love in its purest, most profound form and about exalting that love.

That's what I'm doing. As best as I can, I'm doing it.

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At 6:49 PM, December 16, 2007, Blogger Sheepish Annie said...

I think that really examining it is the first step towards incorporating the new circumstances into your life. You kind of have to feel it before you can deal with it...

Keeping it low key and really listening to what you need this season seems like the right thing to do.

At 11:31 AM, December 17, 2007, Blogger Pam the Yarn Goddess said...

Saying that I know how you feel doesn't mean a thing. I don't know how you feel. Nobody does. I can commiserate with you; I can feel horrible for you; I can say things to try and make you feel better. But I can't say that I know what's in your heart and soul.

Most of my family is gone now, and the worst was my grandpa. He passed in January 1989, and even though it's been almost 20 years, the pain and grief is just as sharp and the loss as tangible as it was then. Holidays are the worst because they center on family. Everybody has to go through this - we all lose our parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, etc. - but we all handle it in different ways.

If your faith helps you, then that is what you should draw upon. Time doesn't heal all wounds; it merely makes the sting less painful. There will come a time when you can talk about your loss, reminisce about holidays past, enjoy looking at pictures of gatherings long gone. That time isn't now. Allow yourself to grieve. Cry. Yell. Do whatever it is that helps. I wish I had a magic pill to give you, but I don't. In my culture, dying is a natural thing that is celebrated as well as grieved. We celebrate because the person who leaves is no longer burdened with whatever they had to deal with here; we grieve because they aren't here for us to hug, to be with, to love in person.

Nobody is ever really gone as long as you carry their memory in your heart. And they're not really gone - they're just not here physically. Try to enjoy the season as best you can. Those who have gone before us wouldn't want us to be miserable.

At 3:46 PM, December 17, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I so do not want to go through this. My heart goes out to you, Jeanne. Christmas is bad enough as a divorcee w/no kids.

At 11:42 PM, December 17, 2007, Blogger tiennieknits said...

I'm so sorry that this season so hard on you right now. I hope it won't always be.

At 2:22 PM, December 18, 2007, Blogger knitteakitty said...

To whatever degree I am able, I feel your loss. I lost my mom October of 2005. Everything I did for Christmas, she was there. She spent the night every Christmas Eve so she could wake up with my kids and I.
September of 2006, my dad died. A completely different kind of loss for me than for you, but a terrible one, nonetheless.
Go with your gut on what you can handle.
I haven't sent out cards since Mom passed, and lots of people don't get it. To borrow your line, "Whatever." I just can't. If it wasn't for my kids and DH, I'd just pass on the whole thing. My solution is, as sheepish annie put it, keep it low key.
My prayers are with you, as is my deepest sympathy.


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