Reframing Christmas…Or Why I Suck at the Occasion This Year

I caught a little bit of the Diane Rehm show today as I was on my way home from the gym. The conversation was about the holidays–specifically about the breakdown of gender roles and the effects of the stress of this time of year on individuals, their partners and their children. It got me thinking more intentionally about what I want Christmas to look like at our house and what traditions I want to stick with, what I want to create, and how to find balance in the midst of it all.

So here’s what that looks like this year.

There is no Christmas tree. There is no nativity. There are no cookie tins (because plastic containers will do). We have not even opened the attic for Christmas decorations.

Christmas cards aren’t going out…again. But if you’re interested in a birth announcement, raise your hand. I’ll send you one as soon as I make it to the post office for more stamps.

There are presents only because interwebs.

There’s no Christmas Eve service because baby and because we lost our church community earlier this year and have yet to find another.

Most of our lack of Christmas is due to having a 4 ½ month old in the house. We love him to pieces. But this whole working full time and parenting when I’m not working or sleeping is hard. And though this baby is a good baby, he is not an easy baby. And parenting is hard. And exhausting. And I can’t even bring myself to ask someone to baby-sit because it’s exhausting and I can’t do that to anyone else.

I’m sure there are parents who have had babies this year who got their Christmas tree decorated (bonus points for the whole house), presents bought and wrapped, and goodies made well before Festivus. Hell, they may have even attended a party or two by now. I’m also pretty sure many of those folks are at least 5 years younger than me (which is damn near an eternity in baby mama years) and aren’t dealing with twice daily doses of compounded liquid Prilosec with conversations of potentially making an appointment for an ultrasound and barium swallow–on top of the burp cloth/beach towel/snuggie combo we’ve employed to protect at least some part of our wardrobe…and the couch.

I am thankful for a baby who is otherwise healthy and happy and sweet and cuddly and too cute for anyone’s good. I am thankful for the interwebs and how so much of what I need to buy can just come directly to me. I am thankful for people who will come and help me make at least one type of cookie–even while I’m still in my pajamas. I am thankful for Christmas incarnated on my TV in various forms. I am thankful for being able to live vicariously through the decorating of others and that I’m not hosting Christmas at my house.

And that’s how Christmas looks this year. That’s how I’ve been able to find balance. That’s how I’ve maintained my sanity. Because there is no margin for Christmas in the way we’ve done it in years past.

But I hope against hope that next Christmas won’t look anything like this one. In the mean time, I’m working to be OK with what this one is.

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Blue Christmas

I was catching up on some blog reading just now and became acutely aware of just how…hard…Christmas is for so many. We are surrounded by…or affected ourselves by…loss and, at times, unspeakable grief. Christmas is a reminder that someone we love is no longer with us. And I’m constantly amazed at the number of people marking time at this time of year as the days leading up to and including December 25 are dates engraved on tombstones as death dates. Talk about a double whammy.

There’s a family in the midwest who are grieving the loss of a husband/father on this day, the second year after he died unexpectedly in a car accident. Black ice. Leaving behind a wife and a slew of children–many of whom were adopted. Three of whom were adopted about the same time Ryan was. From the same country.

There’s a woman in San Diego who will bake brownies tomorrow night and spend time outside writing a letter in a journal to her brother who died at the age of 22 from a heart attack. She’ll share a brownie with him and write about the year that is coming to a close. It’s how she marks the time that passes as she moves forward in her grief.

There’s been consistent news coverage in our area since Sunday night about the just-turned-21-year-old woman who was driving drunk and hit and killed a man who was a husband and father of four children. Hell. What do you say to that?

There’s the husband and daughter of a beautiful woman who died of cancer in August who will experience their first Christmas without her. I can’t say for certain, but I would imagine that Vicki did Christmas big. I can’t say for certain how her family will do this Christmas, but I firmly believe they will be surrounded by those who love them and who will share in the memory of Vicki.

And then there are those of us who may not be marking an anniversary, but we certainly have linked Christmas, in a very powerful way, with the one(s) we’ve lost. Most of us still participate in this holiday. We certainly give it our best shot. Some of us still aren’t there. But we all try to move forward, even if it means clutching the scars that remain.

Tis the Season in Which I Participate

When the question came up during Community Time a coupla weeks ago about whether you are a Scrooge, True Believer, or mere Participant when it comes to Christmas, I sensed that I’m a participant. I just couldn’t really articulate why. And then I landed on a radio station the other morning and it started up a Christmas song. One of the ones I really like. And then it occurred to me that I don’t really listen to much Christmas music…or really even get into Christmas that much anymore.I do try.

I’m the one primarily responsible for decorating (though Al does the lights on the tree), shopping for presents, and gift wrapping. I do basically all of the meal planning, cooking, and baking. I’m also the one involved in coordinating gift giving and other plans with family.

I’m right smack in the middle of it all.

Which is why I can’t be less than a participant.

But that doesn’t mean I enjoy all of it. Or most of it.

Growing up, Mom was in a group of women who got together once a month to play Bridge. Or catch up on the latest news (gossip?) from work. Or both. And everyone agreed that every December, the group was going to meet at our house. It was a combination of things, really. If you knew my mom, you knew that woman could throw down in the kitchen. If you had the opportunity to be at my house between Thanksgiving and the week after New Year, you saw the decorations that were pretty much everywhere. And the Christmas music playing most of the time. And the baking. Good Lord, the baking.

And I still really miss that. As in, I still don’t do well without that.

Certainly, it has gotten better over time. Decorating our tree this year brought back memories of decorating the tree–and even the whole house–in years past. Mom’s Southern Living cookbooks still smell like home…and I’m using one to make a breakfast casserole for an event soon. Other recipes for my holiday baking are hers, too. Others are some I acquired from two Christmases in Ukraine. And all of my people LOVE the results. Even if it sucks the life out of me to make it happen. (Baking is still a mixed bag for me. I love it and I feel connected to Mom…remembering the times I helped in the kitchen or just sat perched on our step stool, talking with Mom while she cooked and baked but staying out of the way in our small kitchen. But it does take a lot out of me.)

Of course, I can’t tell what takes my energy. The extra work I have to do to pull off Christmas in my house…the fact that it’s yet another holiday without the person who made it so special…the fact that it’s the end of another semester of school which always amps up the workload…or a combination of all of it.

Whatever it is, I still participate. Mostly because I’m participating for others. And hoping for the best when all is said and done.

Ho Ho Helicopter

On more than one occasion today, I saw an Apache helicopter flying overhead. Not an unusual occurrence for this girl who grew up near army and air force bases. But I don’t live there anymore and this town was neither home to a major military instillation nor a major threat to democracy. Most of the people who live there do think it’s the center of the universe. The rest of us just think it’s the 18th circle of hell.But I digress.

So this Apache. Kinda got me thinkin’.

I NEED ONE OF THOSE TO DO MY CHRISTMAS SHOPPING.

I mean, can you imagine?

If that commercial is right, I get to grab Santa’s job by the balls and make Christmas happen for all of my people.

So I need an Apache to get my shopping done.

Because really. Why does Santa need that of all things? He has his own vehicle, which I’m pretty sure is a F-350. To say nothing of all the shorties who do his bidding so he NEVER has to venture out to a mall or major shopping center between November 10 and January 3.

And he doesn’t live in the center of the universe. He lives at the top of the world.

Doesn’t. need. it.

Although I have really great mental images of Santa using a batterang (because you KNOW some grown man asked his mother for one for Christmas) to drop down into stores or chimneys to do his Santa thang while the Apache hovers overhead.

I also have really great images of Bad Santa using said chopper to blow through crowds and stores and get that mess done.

And then I remembered I do 96.2% of all my Christmas shopping online.

I could, however, use that Apache for Sunday afternoon grocery shopping…

Counter Culture Christmas

It’s Christmas morn (for another 4 minutes or so), and everyone at my house is watching Casino Royale. Because nothing says Christmas like James Bond.

 

I’m contemplating the differences in this Christmas compared to those past. Ryan was the designated elf who sifted through the presents to hand them out–and there seemed to be fewer this year. Or smaller. I’m not sure…maybe both. Al and I purchased our gifts for one another early. One we’ve taken advantage of already, and the other (a massage) will be used at some point soon. Ryan only asked for a handful of things, and was remarkably easy to shop for. Al passed around his Amazon wish list. I asked for people to donate to a charity of my choosing.

 

So I didn’t have any presents under the tree. Well…except for one. Dad found a present that he said he couldn’t pass up–a very special one that reminded him of Mom and I. And so I had a present. A very special, meaningful, bring tears to my eyes present.

 

It occurred to me on Christmas Eve–and again this morning–that I wouldn’t have a present to open. And I felt, very honestly, conflicted by that. Growing up, even when things were tight, I never knew it on Christmas morning. My parents were always very generous with me. Now, as an adult, I like lavishing gifts on others. And perhaps I did that more for my extended family this year than my immediate one. But I’m OK with that. The immediate family gathered here is quite content with their gifts–and James Bond.

 

My point is, this Christmas this year doesn’t feel lavish–in terms of what was under the tree. But maybe that’s the way it should be. It is, after all, our very consumerist, marketing society that suggests the importance of all the stuff. And perhaps we’ve taken a page from the playbook of the first Christmas, where lots of extravagant planning and events came together–and we want to re-create that magic. Nothing wrong with that.

 

I did feel a little let down by the lack of present opening or piles of wrapping paper after the scourge. But only a little. Because it was fun to make my child happy and give fun and meaningful gifts to others–and receive a meaningful gift in return. And to know that a children’s home in another part of the world can pay part of their heating bill.

 

In talking with a friend this year, she shared that she wanted family to give her children experiences as opposed to stuff. I like that idea. And I’m gonna steal it. We actually were on the receiving end of that this year, with friends giving the three of us an all day pass to everything the US National Whitewater Center in Charlotte has to offer. And we can’t wait.

 

So more of that. More experiences. More giving to people who really need it. More giving meaningful stuff. Less stuff overall. Because I think that’s more of what this season is about. Even if I am in the minority…on this point.

 

Where I fell into the majority: I did buy into the busyness of the season. I did accept my limitations and scrap the Christmas letter. However, the marathon cookie baking took place–even more so at marathon pace this time. Everyone in my house has been sick and I feel like I’ve been steamrolled by the whole thing. I was again the one to wrap the presents, bake the cookies, do the grocery shopping–and the present shopping/ordering. Begrudgingly at times. Which is not at all what Christmas should be about. Apparently, I need to take a page from a different playbook on that one. Hopefully I will. Next year.

 

I keep hoping that the more I try to change my approach to Christmas, the more natural it will feel to do so.

We Made An Excel Spreadsheet

I was in session today with one of my clients who is navigating her role in her family–and how to spend the holidays with them. She and her husband will spend their time driving half way across the country where they will split their time among his parents, her dad, and her mom (hers are divorced) and all the respective siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents. In order to devise a plan that will allow them to maximize the time they will spend with each part of the family, they literally made a spreadsheet to work it out.

 

And that’s how it is for a lot of families. Adult children have divorced parents…and maybe a partner with divorced parents. Or have divorced parents and have a partner with one “set” of parents. Or have two in tact sets of parents but live in completely different places. Or two in tact sets of parents who live near by but have nothing in common with the other set. Sometimes you can get all those people together in the same room. Most of the time, you can’t.

 

And then you make a spreadsheet. Because the holidays are stressful enough. You can’t go throwin’ conflict on the fire, too. Even though you may spend the entire holiday season feeling pulled in 17 different directions and/or caught in the middle of a few. Or a feud.

 

I am thankful. I am one of those few lucky (blessed) individuals whose parents never got divorced. I have a partner whose parents never got divorced. I like his people; he likes mine. We can all–and frequently do–spend time in the same room together.

 

And so here’s what my Thanksgiving gathering looked like: A trip to Columbia, SC with my husband, son and father to stop at the home of my husband’s sister, brother-in-law and niece (and really, they’re my siblings, too). While there, the parental in-laws stopped through on their way to the final destination of us all, and we all (all 9 of us) went out for dinner. The parental in-laws took the niece and charged on to Washington, GA. We got up the next morning (Thanksgiving morn) and headed there ourselves…to the home of my brother-in-law-in-law’s people. His parents, brother, sister-in-law and two nieces. Add about three others who weren’t spending the holiday with their families (one of whom is because they really shouldn’t spend time together without a therapist on retainer), and you have 18 people for Thanksgiving. Two went home after the big meal, but the 16 of us remained…and actually enjoyed one another’s company.

 

Thank God I don’t have to make a spreadsheet. But I am mindful of those who do. And I feel a little guilty–because what I just described is so NOT the norm. For those of you navigating the rough waters of the holiday season, hang in there. My hope for you all is that you can find a way to get what you want and what you need from the people you love most–and that your holiday will be short on conflict and feeling pulled in so many directions.

A New Take on Christmas

It is time for Advent, and I usually spend my Sunday mornings in a church that goes through the Advent…liturgy(?)…but that’s not the case for me this year. The church we’ve been attending hasn’t mentioned Advent…that’s not their style. Of course, we really haven’t been attending that church…or any…for quite some time. Back on the church search train. Something for which I don’t really have the energy right now…even though I have the desire to find a community that’s is a good fit for all of us.

In the mean time, however, I’ve been spending my Sunday mornings resting, reading, doing yoga, baking…other practices that in some way honor the Sabbath–but don’t feel like they do down here in the Bible belt. And…I really do want to be part of a church community.

All that to say…I started reading a new book recently, and I’m finding that now is the perfect time to read it: Jesus Wants to Save Christians by Rob Bell.

It’s actually a perfect book to read as part of Advent. Rob goes into the history of the Jewish nation–starting from Genesis and moving to Exodus, then Solomon, then the Exile (don’t worry, it is by no means exhaustive). As he traces the Jewish story and the many parallel processes of Israel trying to become a priestly nation (one full of people whose primary aim was to worship and serve–which should go hand in hand)…and failing. Each time, God tries to renew the covenant. Each time, Israel does something else to move further East (East of Eden…Nod…away from God…exile…read the book). Enter the need for a different kind of God in a different form to establish a different covenant–that still gets the job done.

Reading the story of the Jews and the many parallels between their history and the story of Jesus has been fascinating–and meaningful. Particularly as we wait and prepare for the Christmas season. That’s what Advent is about–waiting and preparing. That’s was the Jews were doing in exile. And, let’s face it–we are all a people in exile in some way. Suffice it to say, I’m thankful I picked this time to pick up this book. It’s a good read for Christmas–even if it wasn’t meant to be.