I have always been the keeper of the Christmas magic. And I could get pretty uptight about it. There are requirements – mom run holiday meals, lights, tree decorating, snow trips, stockings and gifts and gifts and gifts. So I wonder how Christmas will change after I’m gone, and how that will make my family feel.
Both of my parents lost their parents at very young ages. Born into a holiday context where family was ripped away, there was really only the ritual and tradition around Christmas to hold its nostalgia. We didn’t talk about mom’s Christmases growing up because talking of a mother lost to breast cancer might stir up conflicted emotions for the Petersons. My father, in his early 20s, made stupid, insecure decisions regarding wills and inheritance that would alienate him from his siblings, the two people who most intensely understood the impact of losing both parents so early in life. We all lost a lifetime of connections to aunts, uncles and cousins.
The nostalgia of Christmas, after these losses, was rippled with grief, loss, and anxiety. Without grandmothers, grandfathers, cousins and uncles to argue with, share with, or bemoan, the presents, glitter and stockings become heavy weights, forced symbols of the love, acceptance, approval and connection our remaining living family should have shouldered.
There was a fierce fragility in my parents loyalty to their traditions. Every Christmas became an attempt to one up all Christmases that came before. Decorations were grander. Presents were more numerous. The thrill of the morning present extravaganza mounted with each passing year.
But underneath the thrill was an anxiety for me, a fear that my mother, the orchestrator of all Christmas glory, was left disappointed, lacking. Her capacity for running the Christmas show, for thrilling us with amazing decorations, grand feasts and piles of presents tumbling down under the tree always seemed so one sided. And in my child’s eyes, as a daughter, I saw a sad little girl within her, a child who spent her middle school years bathing the radiation burns on her own mother’s scarred chest and caring for her 8-year old brother – a little girl who gave and served and worked and did it all so damn well but never got to sit in that Christmas cradle of love, where the elders remind us of traditions and family stories and where the foods made by grandparents from recipes handed down from great-grandparents nurture us, fuel us with that special kind of love that flows down from one generation to the next.
Every Christmas, along with the excitement and love linked to the traditions, the food and the presents, I felt an overwhelming sense of inadequacy. No present I could find could stand in for that love that falls down from the older generation. No tradition I could master or perform, no matter how perfect or unchanged, could bring back that parental love.
But I didn’t understand this. So I just tried harder and harder. I would plan big presents for my mother and then I wouldn’t follow through. I would stage bigger, glitzier stockings, wrapping, field trips to the lighted neighborhoods, outings to choir concerts, snow trips. And most of all, I would insist that all of these traditions of my parents be followed exactly as I had been taught them, from the huge number of presents set out for each child to the canned cranberry sauce (without whole berries) on the table for the dinner. Breaking any of these traditions risked breaking something irreparable. When my daughter was 2, we spent Christmas with my husband’s family in France. His family tradition is (sanely) to give one, maybe two presents to each child. I brought two suitcases full of presents from Santa Claus for my daughter, certain that not having a pile under a tree Christmas morning would devastate her.
My parents have never been particularly religious. We are faithful agnostics. We don’t really believe in any particular man’s teachings on what or who God is and if God is a wanting or needing being, any man’s teachings around her or his desires. We are pretty certain there’s something bigger than us out there. We’re pretty certain we come from someplace and go to someplace in some way or form so we have always valued religious ritual when it focuses on shared hearts, harmony, service and community. I have friends who are deeply committed to growth and learning within their religion and I respect them greatly. But at my house we’ve always really liked that Christian Christmas service where you spend the entire hour singing carols, and of course, the church’s Christmas pageant.
Then I married an Athiest. Dad got cancer. And there was a lot of young cousins who really couldn’t stay up for midnight mass. So even that small church part of Christmas was dropped. I remember one Christmas, I think it was 2008, and my third grade daughter asked me “Mom? Who is this guy Chris and why does everyone talk about him so much at Christmas?” My son learned the story of Jesus at age 7 by watching Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.
I was diagnosed with stage IV cancer in June of 2014 and my mom passed away about six months later. So all of my stage IV Christmases have been without her. I’ve not had the energy for the pageantry, so I have had to be a bit quieter, give up the burden of trying to use ritual or tradition or gifts or glitz to cover or fill the wounds we carry or that I imagine others carrying.
And it’s been quite wonderful.
That first year I did a lot of crying. I worried about who would carry on the holiday traditions. Doing everything myself gave me the freedom and control to keep working in this mistaken belief that tradition was about keeping people from hurt and disappointment. But it has all been centered around me. What will happen to my spouse and my kids when I’m gone? Who will lead the traditions? I pictured dark, sad, haphazard holidays and disappointed children.
But we’ve all grown a lot in these last two years. Instead of building big architectures of our future, we’ve sat with the warmth of what is present. We started travelling during holidays, just the four of us, and mindfully enjoying the open spaces the road and wifi free lodges provided us. We’ve drawn more boundaries, making room for the traditional celebrations but keeping space for our own energies and refueling needs as well.
Basically, I stopped trying to use the traditions around the holidays to fill some sort of void or prevent some sort of disappointment. I just let it go.
And I started focusing on very small moments and feelings I wanted to treasure.
I’ve come to the realization that these small moments and feelings are like a small spark of warm light. When we create a tradition or habit that recreates this moment and feeling, we add a tiny twig to this light. Each iteration adds to the warmth and over time, there’s a community of practice, a space for warming our souls and our connections. But what we do doesn’t matter. It’s what we feel, together, that does.
Don’t try to save Christmas, my loves. Let it all fall away. Laugh at some of the crazy rituals I had. Cry at some of the things you loved and will no longer have because I am gone. But do not try to hold on. Don’t make my mistakes.
You can’t keep me alive or our Christmases together alive by trying to recreate what I created. So just let it all go.
Feel free to remember me. You can do it with a winter walk or a new Christmas ornament. Decorate the tree together. Or don’t. Burn it for New Year’s!
And create your own traditions. Share your time and your hearts. Make new memories with our nearest and dearest. Connect with new people – honor their traditions and the layers of family memories or community values in them. Eventually, what you do while sharing will turn into your own traditions based on nurturing the light and not stretched over an attempt to make up for loss or grief in the past. The hole left by my death will be surrounded by layers of loving memories you continue to create.