When I was a little girl, Christmas morning felt so extra special to me.
We didn’t have an Elf on the Shelf, matching family pajamas, or a decorated and themed tree. Our stockings didn’t hang from a fireplace because mobile homes don’t have them. It baffled me every year how Santa would get in our house without a chimney.
Still, in the early morning hours, my mom would turn the lights on the tree to an exciting, fast-paced, flashy setting—a setting reserved for this morning and this morning only. Despite all the stuff we didn’t have, I only ever focused on the lights. It felt warm. It felt special. It felt like Christmas.
I don’t know the last time Christmas felt like that to me. My parents divorced and remarried. After that, Christmas became about squeezing in however many huge celebrations as were humanly possible. Christmas with my mom, then my stepparent’s family. Then my mom’s family in the evening, capping off with a late-night drive to my dad’s—only to repeat the next day. Christmas lost that specialness to me and got replaced with exhaustion instead.
I don’t think my parents are to blame here, though. Divorces happen commonly. This isn’t a story about how awful my life was because my parents split up. I think society went wrong when we started to make Christmas about “stuff” and nothing else.
I grew up, went to college, got married, and moved away. I defensively and firmly reiterated that I would not drag my family across states or the globe, pending where we lived, for the sake of Christmas or any other holiday. Sure, there were years we went “home” for Christmas. But I desperately wanted to have my own holiday traditions, and “home” wasn’t home anymore.
A funny thing happens when you grow up and move away: Wherever you came from will always be home, but it’s never home again either—one foot in and one foot out.
I didn’t drag my family around, I mean. My family never grew. I learned to cook a full holiday meal from scratch in my early 20s. I decorated my house that no one ever saw, baked cookies that no one ever ate, and bought classic Christmas movies and cartoons that no one ever watched.
I was so dedicated to making Christmas special at my house that I failed to realize when the loneliness crept in. Maybe it was that first trip back “home” that felt off. Like somehow, I was looking through a pane of glass into a place I used to belong but now no longer do.
Maybe it was that first miscarriage. Maybe it was that first Christmas I spent alone, waiting for my husband to come back late at night from deployment. Maybe it was that time I bowed out of buying useless knickknack gifts for a whole host of different people and, instead, purchased items they would and could actually use. Maybe it was that time we spent Christmas in a cabin in a remote place in upstate New York (courtesy of the military) because we were still searching for a rental. Maybe it was last year when Eliot was born too premature to survive. Maybe it’s this year when we should be moving our shamefully expensive, glass keepsake ornaments from the bottom boughs of the tree, safe from a toddler’s grabby and curious hands.
I still don’t know when it happened. I’ve spent hours contemplating it. Sure, I live with grief brain now but this is something else. Something bigger. Something that began before the pandemic.
Piece by piece, holiday by holiday, my whole self has been chiseled away. Picked, scraped, molded, and shaped into a true, three-sizes-too-small hearted green Grinch. I’ve wondered, “Is this adulthood or is this me?”
Every year, our two-party plus the dog family traditions are relatively simple. We move a lot, so we collect ornaments instead of cherished family heirlooms. In each tiny ski village or coastal town, we purchase an ornament. We spend a night in early December digging through them all and delicately placing them on our tree, laughing as we retell stories of that trip. Once, we made a wrong turn and ended up hours away from our Groupon hotel. It’s my second favorite ornament too.
We watch “Christmas Vacation” and “A Christmas Story” on the 25th while we eat takeout Chinese food. We rarely, if ever, have presents to open on those mornings because neither of us can wait that long to give each other the gifts we bought.
And honestly, it’s been lonely for a long time: before the first miscarriage, before Eliot. Holidays are lonely for us. Holidays are lonely for a lot of folks.
Folks both in and out of the military spend holidays alone, every year across the globe. They have confronted generational trauma, severed ties, fell on hard times, and lived on meager wages. We eat takeout Chinese food because the world is so centered around celebrating the idea of Christmas that often, it’s the only restaurant open.
Holidays are lonely for a lot of folks. Some of them I am fortunate enough to know. This year, I’ll take solace in that.