Sunday, December 24, 2006

So This Is Christmas

Christmas is a complicated season. For me, there is a gulf between my idea of Christmas and the reality of Christmas. For example, as the season approaches and I am far away, I long to be with my family at Christmas. If I were to be magically transported home, would it be good? Sure, I would love to see them all, love to experience all the family rituals, foibles, in jokes, genuine love and warmth. But would it be the experience of my pre-Christmas longings? Hardly.

Somehow the memories that make up the tug of longing and love and nostalgia do not include some of the harsh realities. Like a Christmas some decades ago when everybody drank too much, and we all watched my brother-in-law crawl down the hall on his hands and knees toward the spare bedroom in my Mom’s house. Or the time I stormed out in tears in 1986 after the family’s efforts to fit me back into the fold as if I was unchanged after 10 years living in another state hurt my feelings, only to have two of my sisters arrive at my nearby house in tears to beg my forgiveness, and we all ended up sobbing. Comfort and joy, indeed. Or going all the way back to when my Dad was alive and not a single holiday ever took place—or if it did, it was only a single one—without him erupting in rage over something.

How do we lose that complexity when we store the idea of Christmas?

The whole thing is such an emotional set-up. In the holiday-light glow of the Phantom Christmas, the Real Christmas with wrought-up feelings, dashed expectations, and a crushing burden of mostly imagined societal perfection cannot stand a chance.

I try to avoid the yawning gulf between Christmas Never and Christmas Present. My husband and I, both veterans of different types of crushed expectation wars, elect to downplay the holiday. We often choose not to exchange gifts with each other. We set up a low-key Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with only a few things that we enjoy doing. Walks, long drives, nature trips, movies and quiet meals together are among the activities we usually choose from. Our very favorite Christmases are the few we have allowed ourselves to be absent from both sets of family, and to travel somewhere. No tree, no stress, just us.

Still, just when I least expect it, it leaps out with a gotcha again. Like this year, when my mother told me not to try to call during the family Christmas Eve celebration, that she would call me. We had coordinated clocks, and I knew what time the get together was starting. Two hours passed. “Well, they had to eat and open gifts,” I reasoned. Three hours passed, then almost four. I knew very well these things seldom lasted much more than three hours, because everybody wants to get home and tucked in relatively early. Still, I fooled myself. “Well, they are just waiting until the end of the football game.” Then, there were no more excuses—and there was no call. And even though this kind of cavalier disregard of my feelings is not at all uncommon with my loving-in-their-own-way, but less-than-sensitive family, like Charlie Brown and the football, my hopeful view of the great Christmas that never really is, had me falling for it yet again.

May the gap between the Christmas you long for, and the Christmas you create be a narrow one. I wish you all some joy and much peace during these stressful days.

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