Last year was a tough Christmas. It was our first Christmas without my mom, and everything we did, every ritual and family gathering, was touched (for me, at least) with a constant awareness of that loss. Her absence was a presence.
I got through last Christmas by telling myself that the first Christmas after you lose someone dear doesn’t have to be perfect, or even merry, or cheery, or any particular thing. After you’ve lost a loved one, you get a free pass on happiness for the first Christmas because you get gold stars just for getting through it. Survival is the new baseline. And with the bar set that low, last Christmas was sad, but not at all unbearable, and had a few moments of laughter and joy.
Now we’ve come through another Christmas season. My mom’s absence is still much on my mind, of course, but the pain is not as keen as it was last year, because we’ve done all these things once already without her. That loss has become a part of the landscape of our lives now — which is not to say that it doesn’t still hurt, but that I’ve got used to the way it hurts.
This year, as you blog readers know, my Aunt Gertie died in November. This was a different kind of loss from my mother’s — it was expected, and gentle, and we’d had some time to get used to it. When a person dies at age 100 in a nursing home, the losses are gradual — we had already, some years ago, lost the tradition of decorating her tree for her at her house, and the tradition of bringing her up to my parents’ house for Christmas dinner. To be completely honest (which always feels a bit weird when talking about family and Christmas), my main feeling about Aunt Gertie this Christmas was relief — that we didn’t have to carry out the awkward ritual we’d done for the last three years, of bringing her turkey dinner and presents and a semblance of good cheer to the nursing home on Christmas afternoon. It was an event that always felt sad, and while I think she enjoyed it, she also seemed to find it overwhelming and a bit confusing, too.
This year, I remembered Aunt Gertie most keenly a few days after Christmas, when I made a pot of turkey soup out of the leftovers. This was something she used to make, and when she was no longer able to, I got her excellent recipe and began making it. I remember keenly how pleased she was the first time she had a bowl of my turkey soup and exclaimed, “It’s just like I used to make it myself!” Since she moved into the nursing home, I brought soup to her after every turkey dinner we had at home.
It’s OK. Let the memories come when and how they come.
In fact, this is my big mid-life realization about Christmas, and I guess about life in general (I’ve already written a bit about it in the context of grief and loss). It is what it is. Let it be what it is.
We all know that so much of the stress around Christmas comes from people’s expectations — that it should be perfect, and magical, and everyone should get along. I am trying to let go of my own expectations, to accept that every holiday season is a little different. The shape of the family changes — not only because the older members die, but the younger ones grow up. Christmas with teenagers is different from Christmas with small children, and some parents can’t let go of missing the pitter patter of little feet and the eager excitement of small hands tearing into packages. Me, I’ve decided to be grateful that we can sleep a little later on Christmas morning. This year, Chris’s out-of-town girlfriend came in to stay with us for a few days, then he went out to her place over New Year’s. I loved having an extra teenager in the house and missed them both when they were gone.
We no longer have the traditional Christmas dinner at my parents’ place. This year, my dad came here to have brunch and open presents with us, then we all hung around and talked and read and played with new gadgets and watched Christmas movies while Jason cooked a turkey for supper. It was a different way to celebrate, but it was good.
For many years, Jason and I used to throw a big party sometime between Christmas and New Year’s. The last two years, we didn’t do that. For a minute I felt like I should and then I thought, “What is should? It is what it is.” We invited a much smaller group of friends over for a games night. We thought the teenagers (Emma, Chris and his girlfriend, and our friend’s daughter) might want to go off and do their own things, but they all stuck around and played games with us, and we had a lovely evening.
It’s not a bad way to approach the whole year, never mind Christmas. I hope never to give up on having goals, plans, aspirations and dreams, but I’d be glad to let go of expectations. Of hanging onto what’s passed or wishing things were different from what they are. I don’t want to be dreaming of a white Christmas while we’re having our usually soggy green townie Christmas. I don’t want to feel that I “should” leave my tree up till Old Christmas Day (I normally take it down the Sunday before school starts, but feel guilty if that falls before January 6) and I want to learn to stop judging the people who tear down the tree and all the decorations on Boxing Day. It is what it is. My Christmas, and yours. My life, and yours. The sooner I accept things as they are, the happier I’ll be.
Let it be, let it be, let it be.