I dread December 26. I cannot remember a time when I have felt happy and content on that day. Instead, I feel listless and sad. A sense of incompleteness flutters at the edge of my consciousness. I resolve to do things differently next year.
The holiday season never lives up to my expectations. When Thanksgiving rolls around, I feel optimistic. I envision a series of memorable family parties and excursions. I plan for the meaningful exchange of heartfelt gifts. I draw up menus with the meals and treats I will make from scratch for family and friends. Ultimately, I promise myself that this will be the year I am present. I will fully experience and remember this Christmas.
Best laid plans, right? Inevitably, the family events become a source of stress as plans are changed, adjusted, and changed again. Some gifts are a bust, and I always end up with an assortment of items I simply don’t need. And the meals…a lot of pizza is bought and consumed during December. I simply feel too tired to make the peanut brittle and fudge I’ve promised to others.
Things got really bad about three years ago. I stopped putting up our Christmas tree and decorations. I reasoned that the effort wasn’t worth the clean-up in just a few weeks. The tree and decorations somehow felt fake to me; they looked cheap and fussy. At the same time, I found myself spending huge amounts of money on presents to make up for my humbug views.
I’m not completely sure what led to this decline in holiday cheer. Over the years my spiritual views have changed, and I now think of myself as an agnostic. I don’t believe literally in the story of Christ, but I do find comfort in the story of his humble birth. Yet the magic I felt as a child—looking for the North star and imagining the trek of the three wise men—is gone, replaced by a sense of grudging duty as an adult.
My family has changed too. Several years ago, I hosted my first Christmas dinner. My father and stepmother were present, and I remember thinking, “It’s all been worth it. The fights, the pain…we made it to this point and now we can be a real family.” Just two months after that seemingly happy dinner, my father and stepmother initiated a painful divorce.
My in-laws offer comfort with their long-standing holiday traditions. But they also ask the dreaded, “When are you going to have a baby?” at every turn. I am reminded that Christmas cannot be meaningful until I have children. I feel guilty and wonder what is wrong with me for not wanting children like everyone else.
In spite of all this, I have put up my Christmas tree this year. I couldn’t ignore my husband’s puppy-dog eyes. Jared finds true joy in the holidays. He loves to hang lights and reminisce about each ornament as it is opened. He insists on watching the vintage Mickey’s Christmas Carol at least three times a week and gets juicy-eyed at the end. He even impersonates Jimmy Stewart and calls out “Merry Christmas Emporium!” on a regular basis.
Once the tree was up, I avoided it for a few days. Then I started allowing myself peripheral glances. If I looked at the tree quickly and from a distance, I felt a small jolt of Christmas spirit. But I couldn’t make myself look at the tree head-on. After a week of this, Jared insisted that I sit with him in our office in front of the tree.
At first, I couldn’t stop fidgeting. I wanted to move ornaments around, especially the ones Jared had hung without any concern for symmetry or aesthetics. The uneven garland and lopsided star at the top made me feel like the effort of putting up the tree had been wasted. I wanted to call off Christmas right then and there.
Jared pointed out the tree lights. The soft white glow made some ornaments sparkle. An ethereal iridescence winked from the ribbon wrapped haphazardly around the tree. The red beaded garland looked newly polished; the individual beads glistened like dewy cranberries. As I focused on the effects of the tree lights, I felt my neck and shoulders relax. I felt a pleasant warmth radiating from my stomach. Even my eyelids became heavy, softening the edges of the tree until ornaments and lights blurred together. Before drifting into nostalgic daydreams, I had one conscious thought: Our Christmas tree is beautiful.