Holidays become harder as we age because, unlike Santa, we’re not carrying presents. We’re carrying pasts.
We carry not only our pasts but also the pasts of others. The pressure, weight and gravity of those no longer in our lives are usually the most difficult to bear.
I miss my father at Christmas even though he never really liked the whole sentimentalized song-and-dance of the season. Although he liked Nat King Cole, my father couldn’t stand “The Christmas Song.” He made fun of the earnest lyrics. “If tiny tots have their eyes all aglow you better check the liquor cabinet,” said my old man.
In Brooklyn, we didn’t have chestnuts roasting on an open fire; we had uncles barbequing sausage in the freezing backyard. They wanted to get away from the aunts and the tots in the kitchen.
More than four decades after her death, I still wish I could comfort my emotionally fragile mother whose anxiety about the possible inadequacies of her own dinners and gifts overshadowed the pleasures offered to her by snow and the ceremonies of the church. Christmas wasn’t easy for her.
Most members of my mother’s large family, with whom she had a complex, fraught and competitive relationship, still lived in Canada. We didn’t get together very often and when we did, we remembered why.
Between both sides, I have 51 first cousins. I’m not in touch with them. Twenty years ago I felt guilty about it, but not anymore. I gave them, and myself, a break.While there were some happy memories from the big family days, the thought of imitating or attempting to re-create them terrifies me. They were part of my life once, but I have now given myself permission to shelve them.
Recent wounds are inevitably more painful. My Facebook friend Marsha Wight Wise said, “Last year I had a get-out-of-Christmas-free pass” because her mother had just died. This year, she fears, will be tougher because, “Right after she died, I was allowed to be sad. This year I think I’m expected to be chipper.”
But here’s the truth: We are allowed to forgo the festivities if we choose and we all have permission to wave goodbye to rituals that no longer meet our needs.
The very idea of meeting someone else’s expectations or needs leads some of us to proffer false emotions and empty promises while attempting to sustain a sense of composure more brittle than thin ice. People don’t have to be gone from the planet – or be one of my cousins – to be off the radar. Divorce, disconnection and distance can feel as irrevocable as death. Traces of earlier days are easier to tumble over this time of year.
We retrieve old memories the way we bring out old decorations – more out of habit than desire. Perhaps we need to choose more carefully.
Nostalgia, like cheap candy, is sticky and often stale.
So why hasn’t the blueprint for the season been updated and upgraded? We’re taking Lyft, not a sleigh, to Grandma’s house.
Don’t sigh over the golden days of yore. (My father would have said “The golden days of your what?”)
Leave the past to the past. Celebrate the here and the now. Open the present.