I have very often found the holiday season to be stressful more than festive. It seemed always to set up a chain reaction of desire and disappointment in me and other little kids. Even in the grownups. The annual Christmas program at church was always beautiful and fun, but the world didn’t change because of it, or all my mother’s efforts to find a new Christmas song that no one had heard before or to engineer perfectly round halos that were suspended above a little angel’s head, wrapped with tinselly Christmas tree garland.
As a kid, I felt a palpable sense of relief in the grownups when the whole thing was over. No, it didn’t turn out as it was supposed to and now it was over, it didn’t matter any more. We could put away the decorations, vacuum the carpet, bitch about the pine needles and get on with our lives.
About ten years ago, I was sitting with an old friend in a small restaurant in San Diego. She was consumed with the fact that her daughters didn’t want to do the usual Christmas Eve dinner and opening of gifts at her house. They were in their late 30s. They wanted to organize their own Christmas Eve and invited her to join them. She was so upset by this that it was all we talked about. Finally — and on the spur of the moment — I invited her to my house for Christmas Eve. The Evil X had just moved in and had not shown his evil side (yet) but that Christmas Eve he would. I wouldn’t see it, though, so it doesn’t matter.
This resulted in my buying a huge prime rib roast (way too big for the party which was friend and her husband, Evil X, his son and me). The menu included Yorkshire pudding which, like all of you, I make several times a week, ha ha. The event also involved cleaning house. At 10 am the Evil X took off, not to be seen until 4 when he returned with his son who had been staying at grandma’s. He has spent the day at various McDonalds watching football games.
At the appropriate time, my guest and her husband arrived. It was a 40 mile drive from her house to mine, so that was not a minor thing. Fortunately it was a nice evening, no rain or other weather to make the drive dangerous or daunting.
The roast literally had no flavor. The pudding was good, but as the roast had no flavor, neither did the gravy. The other things were tasty, as I recall. Overall, the evening went off OK, but under everything was the reality that it was all happening because my friend was upset and hurt by what her daughters had chosen to do. This was about “I’ll show you!” as much as about Christmas.
I think the holidays often cause a lot of interpersonal pain. The pressure to be festive, the expectations of family closeness, the belief that others share our love of certain traditions, the fact that solitude during the holidays feels, to many people, like failure. For a lot of people there is the stress of financial pressure combined with their inability to give kids what they want because there just isn’t money — the list of “unfestive” elements is pretty long.
In my friend’s case, I think she was hurt that the traditions she’d built were not (apparently, or, anyway, at that moment) valued by her kids. I thought they just wanted to do their own thing for once. I was sure my friend had — long ago — felt the same way. There was a Christmas I felt that way, too. I didn’t want to go to Montana and spend it with my mom. I invited my niece — then 14 — to spend Christmas with me in San Diego. We hung out with my friends — most of whom were former students and not even American — and the day after Christmas we then drove to northern California where, at the time, my brother was living with his then new wife. Andrea and I spent Christmas Eve wandering around a beach town that was known for decorations made of sand — including a beautifully lit sand Christmas tree.
We drove back from northern California on New Years day and actually made it through LA in less than 45 minutes which is — if you’ve tried it, you know — amazing, almost unheard of (but now you’ve heard). I guess everyone in LA was hungover and/or watching football.
Andrea said it was the strangest Christmas of her life. It was pretty strange for me, too.
I’ve often thought about the Christmas tree made of sand and how it would, when the holiday season was over, be stripped of decorations and bulldozed back to the beach, a hump that would slowly be carried by the waves back into the ocean. People would come to the beach and stare at the waves in wonderment, ride them, bring their families for picnics and to play. Kids would build sand castles. Not Christmas, but wonderful.
The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.
As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.
The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be—
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.
They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?