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December 30, 2019

Blue Christmas Without You: Reflections on the Darker Side of the Holidays.

It’s the day after Christmas, and I’m knee-deep in the blues with a grinchy disposition.

I want Christmas to get out of my house as quickly as possible. I’m over it!

It didn’t start this way. I guess I had hoped that this Christmas would be different from the last one—which also happened to be the first full holiday season I had experienced without my parents.

I had hoped it might be more like the holidays of my youth.

Christmas was always my favorite time of the year growing up. Not because of Santa and presents, as you might think, but because during Christmas our quiet house would come alive with music, smells, tastes, singing, laughter, love, and hugs that came along with my dad’s extended family. It was heaven for a lonely only child. I can feel the experience fully in my heart as I describe it to you now.

As it does, time went on, and we all grew older. One by one, my beloved family members moved away, something that didn’t happen as much in generations past. I moved away, too. One by one, our elders passed along.  

Our Christmas celebrations became smaller and smaller. And even though I missed the big family gatherings, I still enjoyed the holidays because I had my parents. Then I married my husband Mike and got to spend every other Christmas with his daughters, joyfully expanding our family and making Christmas even more special.

Then came the first Christmas without my mom.

It was a bittersweet holiday, especially for my dad who missed her so much. It was also a relief as she had suffered from health issues toward the end. For me, Christmas was still joyful because I had my dad and he was my link to the family and our traditions. As long as he was alive, we could reminisce together. He kept me connected to those old, good times.  

Then came the inevitable. Four days after Thanksgiving of 2017, my dad passed away. The last of the elder generation of our family.

My dad’s celebration of life brought the entire family home for the holidays. For a short time, our house was filled with that same love and laughter I had ached for for years. I was grateful for it. Being surrounded by my big family helped me get through the difficult first days. There were so many people to hug. There was so much laughter and love—there were  so many stories. I don’t remember Christmas at all that year—the celebration of life was my Christmas.

The next Christmas—or what I refer to as the first “real” Christmas without my parents—was awful. 

I chalked it up to mourning my dad and being in a strange new place at the same time (we had just moved to Lexington, Kentucky). Now I was hours away from any of my extended family.

I barely put up decorations. I didn’t want to listen to Christmas music. I didn’t want to celebrate. After insisting we come over to her house, I broke down in tears on Christmas Day at Mike’s ex-wife’s house, all while I sat surrounded by lovely people who simply weren’t the ones I wanted to be with.

I decided then and there that for Christmas 2019 we would go spend at least a portion of the holiday with my cousins in Chicago. Problem solved!

Holiday time rolled around again and we traveled up to Chicago as planned and spent Christmas Eve and the day prior hanging out with a portion of my extended family. And while I had a great time, it felt like something was missing. I thought for sure I had figured out how to make Christmas “great” again, but to my dismay, Christmas seemed to be a moving target for me.

We made it home in time to spend the last part of Christmas with the kids, having dinner and exchanging gifts. That evening was the highlight of the holiday. As it turns out, it was a much-needed glimpse at what the future could hold.

While it was wonderful to see that corner of my family, it didn’t make me feel as I had hoped. And it had nothing to do with them. It was me who felt different. Like I was out on my own again, a stranger in a shadow of my remaining family. I wondered why.

Then I thought of the saying “No man steps in the same river twice.” I sat with this thought for much of the day. I thought about why I was having such a hard time with Christmas—especially these last few years—and how I could find a much-needed shift in perspective for the sake of myself and the people I love.

What makes Christmas such an interesting holiday to me is that it’s chock-full of nostalgia, past, family, music, and traditions. It’s also filled with expectations—Santa and joy and presents and miracles. It seems ripe for disappointment. It can be lovely and difficult at the same time.

I notice that when I take on celebrating Christmas “all out,” buying in and listening to the music, bringing out the old family decorations, it can also bring painfully to light what’s missing from my life.

To be clear, I know I am hung up on the past. I get it. And that is something that happens to us humans.

I also get that being hung up on the past is a reason for the depression I’m experiencing.

And I think this is the first time that I’m actually grieving the loss of Christmas as I once knew it.

I am face-to-face with the fact that I can never go back again. And that fact makes me really sad. But it also means that I can look with a fresh set of eyes at how I “do” next Christmas so that I can stay present instead of ending up feeling depressed.

Here’s what I’ve come up with:

  1. I will “Marie Kondo” my holiday season. If it doesn’t bring me joy, I’m letting it go. My husband and I get to say which traditions we will keep, which we will let go of, and what new things we can create in the space.
  2. I will give myself permission to fully feel my feelings as they come up during the holidays—to grieve the loss of the holidays as I once knew them until I’ve moved through it. 
  3. I will reach out and call my distant family members when I need some love, instead of feeling sad that they are so far away.
  4. I will acknowledge that this can be a difficult time of year for me and will be willing to embrace it as such.
  5. I will keep the Christmas music to special occasions—parties, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day. Music is powerful and potent for me. It can make me call up memories and cry at any time. So, I’m going to limit how often I let myself go there and think about the way things used to be until I’m sure I can handle it.
  6. And, perhaps most important, I will consciously embrace and create new traditions with the family I have, here and now. I see now that I get to co-create new ways to celebrate with the girls, with Mike’s ex-wife and her husband, with our friends. 

While one of the things that makes Christmas so beautiful is history and tradition, it can be these exact things that can be so painful when they are no longer available. 

Being kind to others is one way to give during the holiday times. It’s hard to know who is grieving or sad, because, after all, we’re told we should be holly and jolly during the holidays. 

If you’re someone who has not been impacted by the loss of tradition or family yet, I am happy to hear it. Enjoy the moment fully so you’ll have it as a rich memory.

If you’re someone who has been impacted, know that it won’t last forever and you’re not alone.

And there’s always next Christmas…

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