When I was 16 , I shared the next to last Christmas ever with my mom. We had no money. My uninsured mother’s slim funds were eaten up by cancer treatments and the minimum payments for overdue bills. I knew it was going to be a lonely Christmas – my sister was too pregnant to travel and my brother was preparing for a month-long expedition to Antarctica. I had long since stopped counting on anything remarkable from my dad for the holidays.
But we got a tree anyway and because I was so clearly feeling low my mother asked if I wanted to get my presents early. I had asked for two things that year and as she handed them over to me, I noticed that was all she had gotten me. This normally extravagant and generous woman who loved to lavish gifts on her children was simply too bereft to give anything more. I will never forget those two presents that year for two reasons: 1) Because even though she had nothing, she got me exactly what I wanted and 2) because that was the year I knew that things were never going to be the same for us again.
Since she died, I haven’t felt the same about Christmas. In those next handful of years, the holiday season was empty and half-hearted and never very merry. Christmas to me symbolized lack and longing, rather than love.
My enthusiasm for the holiday was briefly resurrected when I met my now-husband, Brendan. He comes from a family of nine (9!) children and once we were serious enough to share the holidays together, I was able to stop the Great Christmas Charade with my own family (who also felt my mom’s loss deeply) and immerse myself into a new realm of dysfunction. But this family put the “fun” in dysfunction because, frankly, there were just so damn many of them it was like watching a soap opera. And besides, it wasn’t my family’s drama.
But then Brendan’s father passed away and his mother just a few years later. So we decided to go to a resort in Mexico for Christmas. We then bounced around after that, sometimes traveling to family, sometimes family traveling to us. But my joy for the holiday simply hasn’t returned to its former glory.
Even with big happy changes in my life this year, I seemed to be particularly anti-holidays as Christmas approached. I bah-humbugged a tree. Christmas music made me cringe. I put no thought into gifts for anyone other than my husband. I even went so far as to buy my own Christmas presents – paid for by Brendan, without leaving a single one of them as a surprise for Christmas morning. I then commenced a rigorous course of “feeling sorry for myself ” while my dutiful and supportive husband played along with it all. After all, why should I get excited if there is nothing to get excited about?
After seeing a movie with my sister on Christmas Eve, I returned home to Brendan. My dog rushed me at the door, distracting me completely. But as I looked up into the kitchen to greet my husband, I found that he had directly defied my desire for a ho-hum holiday. He had hung lights around the windows and the fireplace and had bought a small boxwood tree for the table and decorated it. He had also decorated the table around the tree and placed my gifts next to it. Christmas music was playing and the lights were dimmed. He had brought me Christmas – knowing that in spite of my projected disdain and seasonal melancholy – this kind of sweet love was exactly what I needed. And to put a cherry on top, I saw on the table he had gotten me one extra present – this one an actual surprise!
Just like that Christmas so many years ago, I know that this is a Christmas I will never forget. But this year, it will be for entirely different reasons altogether. This year I can feel a tiny spark of hope – deep in my chest – telling me that things are never going to be the same again.