Don’t get me wrong, some of my warmest memories are tied to the holiday season. I don’t know how you feel, but for me, the season’s value may have as much to do with the rituals as it does presents. And every year, households all around the world have their own holiday rituals that just seem to happen as if by some larger design.
When I was a kid, the advent wreath would appear in its place on the dining room table. The Goodyear Christmas albums made their way to the top of the console stereo in our living room. On Christmas Eve, we’d be eating home-made pizza in front of a crackling fireplace, each kid hoping to be Oscar nominated for their efforts to appear as if they were chewing slowly. While the candlelit pizza was special, we were really concealing our excitement at the prospect of getting to open the nights’ one present in anticipation of the next morning’s dash to the tree.
As an alleged grown-up, the task of finding our nieces and nephews the loudest, blinkiest toys we could find became a joyful excursion for us. To insure our brother or sister-in-laws would be tortured long after Christmas morning, we made sure each kid’s noise factory had batteries (with spares as stocking stuffers!). What can I say? It is, in fact, better to give than to receive.
I vividly remember the year we had what must have been a 10-foot tree surrounded by mountains of presents for the kids. Even now, the memory of seeing them frozen speechless (if only for a nanosecond) remains a grin-maker.
Another year, we decided to swim upstream as a couple and conquered the Day-After-Christmas sale at Marshall Fields on State Street for our ‘each other’ gifts. But no matter the year, putting up the tree is the ritual I enjoy the most. Many a time I’ve sat transfixed, looking deep into the depths of the lit tree as if it were some sort of magical campfire.
But even I, as a veteran tree decorator, understood I had met my match when Elsie entered Holiday Stadium. When it came to tree-putting-upping, my partner’s mom made us all look like rank amateurs. Under her leadership, our tribe would fan out through the house, each with our own mission. Familiar boxes came out of storage…lights were tested, ornaments reunited with their hooks and then, hung on the tree – the little kids taking the low branches while we handled the top. Amidst all the hub-bub, even Rudolph and his eight four-legged friends knew there was more to come. While we could smell the big meal waiting for us, we knew we weren’t done. There was one last ritual.
Each year mom made it a point to anoint one of us to place the illuminated glass angel at the top of the tree. I will admit to secretly high-fiving myself the year she picked me for the job. Odd how only that morning, our angel had been sleeping in her cardboard box as she had all year. Then, in the span of one afternoon, she ascended as our familiar winged friend, welcomed again. With Angel’s arrival, the tree was ‘officially’ complete; the world was right and it was time to eat (another ritual).
A seasonal all-star was Elsie’s home-made potato salad. I actually said something the other day about maybe posting the recipe at the end of this week’s blog. But after reflection and the threat of being flogged with holly branches, I decided the prudent path to domestic peace and goodwill would be to step away from the idea. You don’t mess with such an old and guarded family secret. Other perennial menu favorites were the deviled eggs and the green bean casserole with the dried fried onions on top…you know you know the ones I’m talking about. Many was the time I’d stand in the kitchen and eat them right out of the can. And then there was the ham…the big in-bone kind that dwarfs the platter (no offense to any elves reading this). But as delicious as it always was, it was the noise around the table that told me I was loved and gloriously alive. Most excellent.
Whether decorations, food or music, just about every person I know can recite one or two holiday rituals they enjoyed then or now. So many living rooms, so many trees…each one tied to its own value deep inside each of us.
While I treasure the good times, I sometimes wonder why no one ever told me there would be holidays were I was going to be feeling the blues.
Whether it’s a genetic predisposition or less daylight, there have been a few of my Decembers defined by numbing sadness. It was as if the brighter the holiday lights, the deeper I slid into a cold lifeless depression. Yes, Virginia, there are some of us that don’t fare very well amidst the holiday carols and parking wars at the mall. The Christmas after mom died was mine.
Though Elsie had died in the Spring, it was the holidays when she put on the goofy apron and made us all feel like a million bucks. So shortly after Thanksgiving that 1st year, word began to leak out on the family grapevine that my sister-in-law, my step-dad’s kids… all were seeming to have simultaneous scheduling problems…kids had colds, schools had programs and so forth and so on. In each of our own ways, it was quietly becoming apparent that my household wasn’t alone in mourning Christmas Past. So, in fine Midwestern tradition, no one talked about it.
Mom was gone. I was so mad at her. In Elsie, I finally had a mom that was ‘mom’ to me and then…she wasn’t there. The season just wasn’t the same. What was the point of it all? Granted, we put on a brave face as we went through some of the holiday motions, but that’s all they were – motions. In mom’s passing, the rituals lost their verve. My rage at her dying was so palpable that even carols were annoying. All the quirky goofiness that defined my adult Christmases changed to into some kind of yule-based emotional stupor. Everywhere I looked were the sad reminders of what wasn’t anymore. No one made the potato salad that year.
The holiday after that was even less. No potato salad and no tree.
The next year? Darker still. No potato salad, no tree and no family dinner. Kids? Moved away.
With her death, memories of our Head Elf and her infectious joy pierced me like a cruel icicle through the very heart of the Season. Last Winter was so very cold and blue without her.
In those ensuing years, mom’s stuff found it’s way to one household or another. Angel came to live in our closet. We didn’t ask her out. She stayed hidden in her original box, buried under bags of tired tinsel and Christmas knick-knacks from happier times. I felt like a very little boat in a large and frozen ocean. I remember skillfully making preparations for the right time and place so I could drink to numb the hollowness and have no one know of my lonely drunk. I was sleeping way too much. Eating became something I did to pass the empty time. It just wasn’t in either one of us. Holiday cards? A waste of money. I mean really, fa-la-la-la-la who cares? Can we just get this over with?
But this year, something happened…
This year, we had Thanksgiving dinner at our neighbors and her extended family. Their noise reminded of the love at our own family dinners. It took me a day or two to wrap my head around it, but I finally realized how emotionally expensive my seasonal sadness had become. I was mortgaging my fun of putting up lights and a tree for the price of being depressed. It certainly wouldn’t be what mom wanted for us. She was fine. It was time we were too.
It sounds like such a simple realization (and it is), but getting to it was a long row to hoe. So a little out of the blue, I blurted out something about maybe wanting to put up lights this year…maybe the tree too. Bam. “Me too”. And the rest, as they say, became a trip to the storage place to get the boxes of holiday stuff.
It was a blast figuring out where to put the outside lights. It was really good to be playing holiday music while we worked. And then, there was the tree! Pulling out so many of mom’s ornaments was like opening presents all over again. We worked together as the tree got her bling. And then, there was Angel. In fact, as I write you, I’m looking up at her right now as she glows in her rightful place atop our tree.
Here’s where it gets crazy. Coming home from work Tuesday night, one of my neighbors stopped me to compliment us on our outside lights. “No matter how tired I am at the end of the day, I pull in and see your lights and it makes me smile.” Wow! You never know who’s needing the light of your Life. Have some fun this year. Buy some groceries for someone. Light your tree. Turn the radio up or just enjoy the light of the candle you light for your mom. Angel’s glowing.
Conquering the blues during the holidays is not easy. It took me several years to come back and I’m still learning. In the spirit of a grade school craft project, I’ve added a new page to the blog this week. Click on it and you’ll find a cut-out survival guide that may prove helpful in managing stress and depression at this time of the year.
Photo Credits: Elsie’s Angel: dan4kent; RedTree: http://www.deepdalefarm.co.uk/blog/tag/christmas-tree/; Christmas Food: http://www.myrecipes.com/menu/christmas-dinner-10000000522330/; Snowflakes5: http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/photos/patterns-snow-ice/#/dendrite-snowflake_9425_600x450.jpg; Grinch blowing Trumpet: http://www.agratefulyogi.com/2011/11/how-grinch-found-yoga.html; Mickey and Friends: http://www.desktopexchange.com/Wallpaper/Christmas-wallpapers/Disney-Christmas-wallpaper/mickey__friends_christmas/large_photo
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