How do you find a way to celebrate the holidays with your family when they’re difficult for you?
Truth? In my forties, I’m still trying to figure it out — but I think I’m getting closer.
When I was growing up, the tension in the house between my parents settled in a thin layer of ice some time after Thanksgiving and remained until well into January. Though my dad put lights on the tree and Bing Crosby on our stereo and my mom decorated, bought thoughtful presents for my brother and me and made a nice meal, it did not warm the chill in the air or ease my anxiety as a young child. The most difficult part, I think, was reconciling the manic Christmas cheer all around us with what was happening in our family. Stores, TV, music, and decorations in town all served to remind us of what was lacking at home.
As a result, I think I avoided the holidays for years. My husband Joe and I lived in Japan, where Christmas is generally celebrated as a kind of romantic holiday between young lovers. Signs everywhere say things like, “Love Love Christmas” and swanky restaurants offer deals on 12-course meals. Joe and I took trips sometimes; other times we were home with our families here in the States, but the long trek home (24 hours from door to door) often felt rushed and stressful.
When we moved back home and had our son, everything changed. Suddenly, Christmas was on the table again, only I wasn’t really up for it. The music, decorations, food — it felt overwhelming, to be honest. At the start of December, I’d start to feel a pit open up in my stomach, that “something’s wrong” feeling that can’t be named. Forget our young son — I was the one who was more irritable and more prone to meltdowns. It didn’t go away until January, when the tree was finally dismantled and thrown out. Part of what made it difficult was all the perceived holiday cheer, the cards and pictures that flowed in showing perfect-looking families, letters describing vacations, graduation, promotions. While we all want to celebrate these moments with friends and family, it can feel hollow and isolating if you’re not in a joyful frame of mind yourself. And in the midst of all that happy news is the question, “What about the real stuff? Didn’t you struggle at any time this year? Wasn’t anything hard for you? Do your kids always behave perfectly, because mine sure doesn’t!”
This was the start of one my first DIY holiday traditions. I set out to write the real Christmas Letter — the one where I decided to tell the real stuff, the unflattering stuff, and the absurd stuff that happened to us the previous year. The only rule was that it had to be funny. (Like the story of the day my son swore for the first time when he was five, and I blamed my husband, only to find out Alex had learned the word from me.) I sent the letter to a select group of people who knew us and loved us (and who have an endlessly forgiving sense of humor). The reaction was immediate and positive. (Who doesn’t need validation and a good laugh around the holidays?)
As my son got older, my husband and I continued to sit down and talk about things that would make Christmas meaningful. Joe needs to see his big Italian family, and so we do — and they are part of why I have come to love the holidays. The warmth, laughter and goodwill (and homemade wine) in his cousin’s house on Thanksgiving lights up the season. We also included our son in the debate, who said he wanted to stay home on Christmas morning rather than travel, so now we spend a peaceful Christmas together instead of shuttling to relatives’ houses. Sometimes my mom joins us, and that makes it even more meaningful.
In the lead-up to Christmas, we try to get together with friends and attend a few parties, but we don’t do anything too crazy. I found that I like the peaceful, spiritual feeling of taking a walk in the woods, lighting candles, going to church on Christmas Eve night, and opening our presents together and then playing with them on Christmas day. We’ve started inviting a few friends over for Christmas dinner to help join in the celebration, and that feels right, too. And when I’m starting to feel stressed or triggered by childhood memories, I take a deep breath and call a trusted friend. Or hug my husband and son. Or go to yoga. Or sit down and write something.
Slowly, I’ve learned that ice can thaw over time. You can build your own traditions, and your own holiday. All you need to do is listen to what that small voice inside is telling you.
Wishing you and all your families a peaceful holiday season.
Elisabeth Wilkins is the mother of one son and the Editor of Empowering Parents. She and her family live in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.