Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Back to Black Friday
"I just don't understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I'm still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed."--Charlie Brown from A Charlie Brown Christmas
Christmas used to be my favorite holiday, hands down. Ornamental glass and glitter to dress up a freshly-cut Douglas Fir, Elvis crooning about his hope for snow, the feast of the seven fishes on Christmas Eve in Bensonhurst when my grandfather was still alive. I didn't actually eat any of the fish--certainly not the stuffed squid or the marinated octopus. But even though my dinner consisted of several slices of semolina bread and rice balls I was content. I liked the traditions, even the ones in which I didn't take part. And the presents! At midnight was the crisp pop of an Asti bottle, an opened Panettone creating a cloud of powdered sugar overhead, and all the relatives and friends squeezed into the tiny livingroom to sit shoulder to shoulder on the plastic-covered faux baroque furniture. Piles of opened gifts formed at our feet, and the sounds of appreciation and glee continued as the last present was presented to Pipina, or sometimes Pipinella, my grandfather's nicknames for my grandmother Josephine, or Guiseppina in their native Italy.
Even as I slipped into my twenties and early thirties, and the boisterous Christmas Eves in Brooklyn became the much tamer Christmas Eve's of my parents' house in New Jersey, I still looked forward to Christmas. We no longer waited until midnight to exchange gifts, and there were probably only five or six fishes if you were counting, but there was still the comfort of traditions my parents and I shared. My mom and I exchanging one gift early ("Just a little one!") The tree festooned to toppling with an assortment of ornaments that took my mother decades to accumulate. I worried a little more about getting the right gifts (and enough of them) for my family, but I also felt expansive in my desire to make other people happy. I felt a connection to my father--who always goes a little over-the-top at Christmas--every time I was extravagant, buying those last-minute cashmere gloves for my mother or the basket of gourmet treats from Chelsea Market for my Aunt.
This year my parents will be in Sweden on Christmas, visiting my uncle and cousins on my mother's side. While I'm happy for them, I can't help feeling like I'm losing the lovely feelings that the holidays usually bring. Some people might say that Christmas is a holiday meant for children, and we don't have any small children in our immediate family. Others look to the spiritual significance of what is otherwise a consumer bonanza that starts in mid-October. But unlike Charlie Brown's existential holiday blues, I'm not newly inspired by the story of Mary and Joseph in the manger because I'm not religious.
Even my husband, who is usually adept at cheering me up, is no help here. He dreads Christmas because he sees it as a time of excessive obligations. Whatever joy he brings to the occasion is for my benefit. We adopted our rescue dog Carmelita last year because, while attending a performance of the cloying A Christmas Celtic Sojourn , I wept at the sight of little girls in frilly dresses and striped tights, knowing they were much happier than I was at that moment and wishing to borrow one of them to distract me from the crap playing on stage. Actually I was the only one who appeared to be bristling at the sound of Brian O'Donovan and the sight of the blonde and bouncy young thing kicking it up every interminable minute.
Black Friday is this week, an ugly reminder of the disregard some of us have for the welfare of others (and I'm not excluding myself here--I can be a hellion at a sample sale) as we push our way toward the promised deals before some other knucklehead gets them.
Even if there is bad news, like the kind I received from a close friend recently, and heard about secondhand from others--the holidays still come. What do those families do to get through, and how can you celebrate when you know there is suffering going on in your midst?
How do we make the holidays meaningful again, without completely deflating the joy and occasional frivolity? I'm not trying to be a joykill here, I just don't deal so well with change and naturally there have been a lot of changes since I was young. It used to be my main concerns were as shallow as "Did my father get me the perfume I want? or "will I have a boyfriend this year and if so, what should I buy him that shows the right amount of affection without scaring him away?" Now I wonder if there's more to the holidays than a discounted iPhone. Even the cookies I like baking have become sugary carb bombs as I get older and thicker.
Maybe I just need to start simple and without high expectations. You know, peer into some decorated department store windows, or make an ornament out of pipe cleaners, or buy a holiday outfit that will make me feel pretty. Or maybe I'll try to think up some new traditions that will fit the way my family, friends and I live now.
Do you have any favorite holiday traditions that make the season bright for you?