From Grinch to…Grateful?

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

Honestly, I do not love Christmas. It’s not a popular statement. In fact, admitting it out loud, seems almost like breaking the 11th Commandment…Thou Shalt Love Christmas!

But I do love a good conversation starter question. So, for most big holiday dinners, I will come armed with a question so that everyone has a chance to talk (in a loud Irish family — this requires advanced planning). So, one Christmas I thought I had come with the BEST question! “What was your most memorable Christmas?” This was going to be fun!!

My cheerful, optimistic Father declared, “none, we were very poor and I never got anything I wanted for Christmas.” Wow. Wasn’t expecting that from Mr. Personality.

Undeterred, I forged ahead. My three siblings and I recalled the Christmas that our oldest brother, Jackie, got in massive trouble for being out too late on Christmas Eve. My parents glared at him with such intensity throughout Christmas Day that I’m convinced it kick-started his premature balding.

For her turn, my dear mom began to cry before she even got the first word out, recalling the Christmas, decades earlier, when her mother passed away on December 21st. As my mom wiped her eyes and everyone around the table sniffled, my husband leaned over and kindly whispered in my ear, “Good job, Mare.”

The point is, for all the “magic” and “wonder” of the season. Christmas can be hard. And often the most memorable Christmases are as bitter as they are sweet.

If you peruse my social media, you’ll think that the Holidays are non-stop FUN at our house. And, in many ways they are. I work hard to make them that way. I want my kids to remember the fun, the traditions, the silliness and sentiment of the season. What you can’t see, what I battle from the first “Fa-la-la-la-la,” is a constant drumbeat of anxiety mixed with equal parts grief.

Maybe it started the year I had an emergency appendectomy on Christmas Eve, with my 3 very young kids waiting for Santa (and me) at home. Maybe it started because of several deaths that occurred in the family within days of Christmas. Or maybe it was just an accumulation of years when someone was missing from the dinner table; my father-in-law, my brother Jackie, my mother.

Though this year I realize, more than ever, that I am not alone. I know that the loudest guest at many holiday tables will be the one who is not there.

For many years I’ve struggled with the “sameness” of the Holiday season. Timeworn songs, scents, sights, and tastes would evoke hard memories and conjure ghosts of Christmas past. I often say, “if a bad thing happens on February 11th, it’s just a day when a bad thing happened, but if a bad thing happens on Christmas, there’s a soundtrack.”

But, 2020 offered an epiphany. It is exactly this “sameness” that makes Christmas special. The ritual of the music, the cookies, the expectations and decorations is exactly what makes it memorable. I realized that while the Holidays put a spotlight on who we are missing, they also cast a warm glow on the memories they left behind.

Now, I’m not about to launch into a rendition of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” But in this year where I’ve missed all the rituals that I took for granted — graduations, proms, weddings — Christmas still looks the same, smells the same, sounds the same. And for the first time in a long time, I am grateful for it.

I remember the stories Jackie would regale us with every Christmas (usually centered around the aforementioned Christmas Eve hijinks) and the fact that he almost always wore shorts, no matter how cold it was outside. I remember the Christmas-tree-shaped cake my mother would bake and how hard she worked to make it all special. I don’t remember what she did on every February 11th. But, I remember and I’m grateful for every December 25th we all had together.

Every Christmas Eve, we honor my father-in-law by carrying on the tradition of “Christmas Poetry” that his mother started. I’m sure “Grandmother Lamb” wouldn’t recognize her genteel game of rhyming Christmas riddles in the bawdy, irreverent “poems” that we now share. But in that tradition, my father-in-law is present, his favorite lines being passed down to a third generation. “Shopping I did go; in the rain, sleet and snow…”

Just a few days ago, in the midst of this pandemic, I visited my 92-year-old father, who now lives quietly in our family home. I keep my distance and wear a mask. Everything is so different. And then it’s the same. We turn on some Christmas music as we admire the twinkling lights on his tree. We reminisce about Christmases past, as we endure this present Christmas, and still have hope, beyond reason, for Christmases yet to come.

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