Coping with Christmas

Most people have less than perfect holiday gatherings — they have family tension, melancholy, and dry turkey too.” — WebMD article

IMG_1854Update: A slightly edited version of this piece is currently featured on David Crumm’s Read the Spirit. I’m honored by David’s lovely introduction to the column on his site.

Christmas is my least favorite holiday, and Im no longer ashamed to admit it. In newspapers across the country and in blogs throughout cyberspace, scores of fellow grinches are expressing their Yuletide angst. And you know there’s something to it when health and medical Web sites like WebMD publish serious articles on how to survive this stressful season.

My annual winter holiday dread has little to do with religion. In fact, at this point in time, Christmas itself has little to do with religion. Christmas has become a performance art; a commercially manufactured event designed to benefit our nation’s retailers. Even worse, it’s a form of emotional blackmail — cleverly repackaged with Martha Stewart trimmings.

Originally a pre-Christian Roman celebration known as Saturnalia, December 25th was converted to Jesus’s birthday celebration by the Roman Catholic Church. What started out as a rowdy solstice festival involving the lighting of torches, drinking to excess, and doing all manner of wild things to chase away winter’s darkness has slowly evolved into a rowdy Christian festival involving the lighting of torches, drinking to excess, and doing all manner of wild things to chase away winter’s darkness.

And while I’m on a rant, why do we insist on keeping Christmas in the winter, risking our lives by traveling in god-awful snow and ice storms to eat ham with relatives? If celebrating Christmas is non-negotiable, why not pretend that Jesus’s birthday is in July, and throw a barbecue?

So there you have it. Just don’t accuse people like me of being sacrilegious for wishing the holiday would melt away quietly with the weekend snowfall. Regardless, as Garrison Keillor once said, Christmas is “compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all get through it together.”

We feel steamrolled by the sheer force of family tradition. The key is to take some control over the holidays, instead of letting them control you.” — WebMD

Meanwhile, heres what I’ve come to believe about Christmas — plus how I’ve learned to cope with it and (sort of) enjoy it:

*Giving to a favorite charity always restores my drooping holiday spirit. When the bah-humbugs start biting, there are two antidotes: (1) Roll up my sleeves and help someone who needs me. (2) Pull out the checkbook and make a donation to a good cause.

*I remind myself that it’s not my job as a woman (or a family member) to make Christmas merry for everyone. Seriously, we all must STOP relying on women — usually the elderly — to keep cranking the Christmas Machine for us. Either we all contribute to the festivities — in any way we can — or settle for the holiday we get. Unless you’re still in college, you’re too old to hold your mom, your grandma, or your aunts totally responsible for your holiday happiness.

*I resist the pressure to bake and I’ve stopped feeling guilty about it. I love to cook, but I’m not a baker. This is the secret to holiday weight loss. I even purchase pre-made pie crust for our Christmas morning quiche, and nobody seems to mind. My lack of participation in the annual cookie exchange doesn’t mean I don’t admire everyone’s Yuletide talents. Just not my thing.

IMG_1854 2*When Christmas makes me sad or angry, I remember I’m not alone. I’ve grown more sensitive to the fact that many people are grieving losses (including death, health crises, and divorce) during the holidays. With its glaring focus on family unity, Christmas illuminates all the vacancies at the holiday table as well as any emotional distance that separates us from extended family. Talking with my friends, I’ve learned that almost everyone is facing some sort of holiday change or challenge, and is trying to make the best of it. Nobody’s having loads more fun than anyone else.

*I can decorate the way I want, and stuff the rest in the attic. Every year, Doug banks our fireplace mantel with evergreens, pheasant feathers, twigs, and twinkle lights. It’s a set-designer’s fantasy that delights everyone who sees it — especially me. That tradition is a keeper. But over the years I’ve pared down to a few sentimental treasures, including a sterling silver bell (dated 1985) that was given to us by a dear friend when our son Nate was born. In recent years, Doug and I have lost interest in putting up a Christmas tree — which baffles some holiday visitors.  We reserve the right to change our minds in the future.

*I do something ordinary, with people I know and love. Forced merriment is not my idea of a good time. Even with people I like. So I have to question the need to cram our calendars with “special events” between December and January. Why not spread the love throughout the year? Likewise, I enjoy giving gifts — but not under pressure and not all at once. What touches me more are the simple, reliable, consistent efforts made all year ’round by my nearest and dearest. I’m nourished by un-fussy gatherings with both friends and relatives who don’t expect me to turn myself into a pretzel just because it’s Christmas. 

*I’ve lowered my expectations and welcomed the new. Nobody will ever throw a Christmas party like my Scottish immigrant grandparents did when I was a kid. But I usually encounter a dash of their old-country energy and gregarious spirit at the Christmas Eve open house hosted by my son’s Croatian mother-in-law every year.  Following my grandparents’ example, I try to bring some Celtic cheer (and a bottle of Bailey’s) to every party I attend. That said, I also privately acknowledge the times I feel mournful or alone — even in a big roomful of partying people.

*I’ve accepted the fact that I’ve finally grown up. I cannot return to the home of my childhood Christmases (the house was sold years ago). My beloved father has been dead for more than 20 years, and my mother’s dementia has progressed to the point where she doesn’t know it’s Christmas. My son Nate is 28 years old now, and married to a woman we all adore. As much as I love to recall the memory of Nate’s first train set chugging around the tree when he was small, our family’s early traditions and special moments cannot be recreated or reenacted. And that’s the way life is supposed to work — every month, every day, of each beautiful year we’re given. We grow, we change, we endure, we mature, we move on … Glory be.

— Photography and artwork by Cindy La Ferle — 


22 thoughts on “Coping with Christmas

  1. I am solidly in your camp, Cindy. My husband and I do what works for us. We do still like to have a tree…with the decorations we choose – not every single one we own. I bake the few things I know will be enjoyed by family members; I forgo the cookie swap as well. Ken and I and our children enjoy finding the one or two “perfect” gifts for each other and spend the rest of our energy enjoying the time we have together. Holidays were not happy when I was a child; my life-long goal of making these times special for my children continues into their adulthood, and so far so good.

  2. Thanks for sharing your traditions, Sharon — very sweet. I hadn’t thought about the perspective one would have if her childhood Christmases were unhappy ones.

    I’ve had a lot of loss in my family, and all the people who “made” Christmas incredibly happy for me are gone now… so I’ve really had to grow up and, like you, focus on creating a new kind of Christmas for my own family.

    Basically, what I resent is the cultural pressure to have a Norman Rockwell / Martha Stewart holiday. Too much is too much, and I think our culture needs to slow down. There’s a wonderful book on this, by the sensible Bill McKibben, called “Hundred Dollar Holiday.”

  3. I love the last line especially. Very poignant. You speak of real life, not an idealized version. And I never like to be forced to do things someone else’s way. Although I do at times feel guilty. You brings up many good points.

  4. Cindy, I can’t believe you have read our minds. This is the first year that we haven’t had a Christmas tree put up. We agree that commercialism has overshadowed the true meaning of Christmas. So, this year we have decided to celebrate in our own, quiet way. We will see all the kids, but it won’t be all at once at our house. The family has grown so fast with so many grandchildren and great-grandchildren that there is just no room in our house for the gathering that used to take place. Thank you for writing what we are feeling. It’s nice to know that others agree.

  5. Bob, thanks so much for reading and responding. I’m pleased that this post has resonated with so many, and is not misunderstood. (That said, I am sorry that we’re all so bullied by a holiday.) I just got word today that the post will be picked up by, an ecumenical site run by David Crumm, the former religion and spirituality editor of the Detroit Free Press. I am honored.

  6. Amen, CIndy.

    I’ve had a lot of losses recently myself as I think you know. And for me Christmas has decidedly changed. I loved being with my parents each Christmas and now no longer can, though I am in spirit as I am each day.

    So that has changed for me as well. I’m sure I’ll begin to create some new traditions. But it’s just not the same. And in a way, that is OK, too.

    What other choice do we have? (I wrote about my thoughts on Thanksgiving, link on my blog) though that holiday was never as anticipated for me as Christmas, which I still do love.

    These days I enjoy especially the older Christmas music — Handel’s Messiah, ancient Hungarian Christmas choral music, etc. And a peaceful Christmas tree with ornaments collected in years past and tiny white lights always makes me smile.

    As for retailers, I like you am really turned off at the commercialization of the holiday. It starts earlier and earlier each year. Offensive really.


    • Ellen, I can only imagine how rough the holidays would be for you, and others like you, after such huge losses recently. I do like the new traditions you’ve started for yourself. And I read your excellent Thanksgiving piece… My heart goes out to you, and I will keep you in my thoughts.

  7. Nin ! Isn’t it true how the holiday now is soooo about retail, retail, retail.
    Wish I was there to have a “cafecito” with you…… time with loved ones is what it’s about ……

  8. This will most likely the last year that all our children and the two grand daughter who are available will be with us on Christmas Eve. My father started this trdition many years ago. He believed that the kids should be at his home on the Eve and then spend the day in their own homes so the chldren can play with their gifts. After he passed I have carried this on. But the grandchildren are in their 20s now, hubby is 72 and I am 78 so it is time to take a step back.

    On my counter is a copy of Writing Home that I can’t wait to start reading.

    Have a happy, healthy,and prosperous holiday and may it continue into the new year.


  9. Carla,
    Wish you were here too, my friend. In spirit, I feel your sunshine, and I think of you and your family. Hope we can cross the miles soon, do that weekend in St. Joe.

    Momma — thanks for your thoughts. I think that’s a great tradition. I am touched that you bought a copy of Writing Home, and I look forward to your “review” as well! Merry Christmas!

  10. “For all we’ve endured, we have every reason to sustain hope. We need the hopeful message of Christmas all year long, and maybe a small string of white lights to remember it.”

    “Still, at its heart, Christmas remains a celebration of light’s triumph over darkness. A celebration of miracles.”

    I feel your pain, Cindy, but do Christmas your way — you know the reason for the season, you’ve recognized it before in times of trial and terror and your dear parents are with you now more than ever in your vibrant memories. I hope you find some peace in this season of love.

  11. Thank you, Mary — who wrote those quotes? 🙂 I hope you’ll consider my sentiments in the last lines I wrote for this particular post:
    “We grow, we change, we evolve, we endure, we move on … Glory be.” And that applies to things we’ve written 🙂 Mary, I wish you the merriest — and hope your writing life is going well.

  12. Wow, Cindy. I was so far behind on things, that I am reading this after Christmas…and I blogged something similar after I heard “perfect Christmas” just one time too many! I totally agree!

  13. Couldn’t agree more. This was the first year without a tree, and no photo Christmas card of the kids was taken or sent. Just wasn’t feeling it, and didn’t buy into the whole deal this year, I feel emancipated for future seasons.

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