Coping with Christmas

Most people have less than perfect holiday gatherings — they have family tension, melancholy, and dry turkey too.” — WebMD article

IMG_1854Update: A slightly edited version of this piece is currently featured on David Crumm’s Read the Spirit. I’m honored by David’s lovely introduction to the column on his site.

Christmas is my least favorite holiday, and Im no longer ashamed to admit it. In newspapers across the country and in blogs throughout cyberspace, scores of fellow grinches are expressing their Yuletide angst. And you know there’s something to it when health and medical Web sites like WebMD publish serious articles on how to survive this stressful season.

My annual winter holiday dread has little to do with religion. In fact, at this point in time, Christmas itself has little to do with religion. Christmas has become a performance art; a commercially manufactured event designed to benefit our nation’s retailers. Even worse, it’s a form of emotional blackmail — cleverly repackaged with Martha Stewart trimmings.

Originally a pre-Christian Roman celebration known as Saturnalia, December 25th was converted to Jesus’s birthday celebration by the Roman Catholic Church. What started out as a rowdy solstice festival involving the lighting of torches, drinking to excess, and doing all manner of wild things to chase away winter’s darkness has slowly evolved into a rowdy Christian festival involving the lighting of torches, drinking to excess, and doing all manner of wild things to chase away winter’s darkness.

And while I’m on a rant, why do we insist on keeping Christmas in the winter, risking our lives by traveling in god-awful snow and ice storms to eat ham with relatives? If celebrating Christmas is non-negotiable, why not pretend that Jesus’s birthday is in July, and throw a barbecue?

So there you have it. Just don’t accuse people like me of being sacrilegious for wishing the holiday would melt away quietly with the weekend snowfall. Regardless, as Garrison Keillor once said, Christmas is “compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all get through it together.”

We feel steamrolled by the sheer force of family tradition. The key is to take some control over the holidays, instead of letting them control you.” — WebMD

Meanwhile, heres what I’ve come to believe about Christmas — plus how I’ve learned to cope with it and (sort of) enjoy it:

*Giving to a favorite charity always restores my drooping holiday spirit. When the bah-humbugs start biting, there are two antidotes: (1) Roll up my sleeves and help someone who needs me. (2) Pull out the checkbook and make a donation to a good cause.

*I remind myself that it’s not my job as a woman (or a family member) to make Christmas merry for everyone. Seriously, we all must STOP relying on women — usually the elderly — to keep cranking the Christmas Machine for us. Either we all contribute to the festivities — in any way we can — or settle for the holiday we get. Unless you’re still in college, you’re too old to hold your mom, your grandma, or your aunts totally responsible for your holiday happiness.

*I resist the pressure to bake and I’ve stopped feeling guilty about it. I love to cook, but I’m not a baker. This is the secret to holiday weight loss. I even purchase pre-made pie crust for our Christmas morning quiche, and nobody seems to mind. My lack of participation in the annual cookie exchange doesn’t mean I don’t admire everyone’s Yuletide talents. Just not my thing.

IMG_1854 2*When Christmas makes me sad or angry, I remember I’m not alone. I’ve grown more sensitive to the fact that many people are grieving losses (including death, health crises, and divorce) during the holidays. With its glaring focus on family unity, Christmas illuminates all the vacancies at the holiday table as well as any emotional distance that separates us from extended family. Talking with my friends, I’ve learned that almost everyone is facing some sort of holiday change or challenge, and is trying to make the best of it. Nobody’s having loads more fun than anyone else.

*I can decorate the way I want, and stuff the rest in the attic. Every year, Doug banks our fireplace mantel with evergreens, pheasant feathers, twigs, and twinkle lights. It’s a set-designer’s fantasy that delights everyone who sees it — especially me. That tradition is a keeper. But over the years I’ve pared down to a few sentimental treasures, including a sterling silver bell (dated 1985) that was given to us by a dear friend when our son Nate was born. In recent years, Doug and I have lost interest in putting up a Christmas tree — which baffles some holiday visitors.  We reserve the right to change our minds in the future.

*I do something ordinary, with people I know and love. Forced merriment is not my idea of a good time. Even with people I like. So I have to question the need to cram our calendars with “special events” between December and January. Why not spread the love throughout the year? Likewise, I enjoy giving gifts — but not under pressure and not all at once. What touches me more are the simple, reliable, consistent efforts made all year ’round by my nearest and dearest. I’m nourished by un-fussy gatherings with both friends and relatives who don’t expect me to turn myself into a pretzel just because it’s Christmas. 

*I’ve lowered my expectations and welcomed the new. Nobody will ever throw a Christmas party like my Scottish immigrant grandparents did when I was a kid. But I usually encounter a dash of their old-country energy and gregarious spirit at the Christmas Eve open house hosted by my son’s Croatian mother-in-law every year.  Following my grandparents’ example, I try to bring some Celtic cheer (and a bottle of Bailey’s) to every party I attend. That said, I also privately acknowledge the times I feel mournful or alone — even in a big roomful of partying people.

*I’ve accepted the fact that I’ve finally grown up. I cannot return to the home of my childhood Christmases (the house was sold years ago). My beloved father has been dead for more than 20 years, and my mother’s dementia has progressed to the point where she doesn’t know it’s Christmas. My son Nate is 28 years old now, and married to a woman we all adore. As much as I love to recall the memory of Nate’s first train set chugging around the tree when he was small, our family’s early traditions and special moments cannot be recreated or reenacted. And that’s the way life is supposed to work — every month, every day, of each beautiful year we’re given. We grow, we change, we endure, we mature, we move on … Glory be.

— Photography and artwork by Cindy La Ferle — 

 

Stealing Christmas?

And they’ll feast, feast, feast, feast. They’ll eat their Who-Pudding and rare Who-Roast Beast. But that’s something I just cannot stand in the least. — Dr. Seuss, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas

Earlier this week, there was a wee bit of dissent among Facebook friends when I replaced my profile photo with an image of Dr. Seuss’s irascible Grinch. I made the change after returning from a nerve-sizzling shopping expedition at one of my favorite grocery stores, which was insanely over-crowded with other crabby holiday shoppers. Climbing back into my car in the over-crowded parking lot, I’d encountered even more crabby shoppers jockeying for position. I wanted to roll down the window and yell: Why in the hell are we doing this?!?

Those who don’t know me personally were surprised to learn on Facebook that I don’t enjoy Christmas as much anymore — although one friend sent a private message to applaud my courage for admitting it.

After all, Christmas has become an official American holiday, so it would have been nicer, more politically correct, to keep my mouth shut. From outward appearances, Christmas is all about buying stuff, trying to digest rich foods we shouldn’t eat, spending money we should save, and reenacting Victorian family myths that don’t always work for our own families.

Bashing Christmas, I’m told, is an act of treason — at least to the most patriotic among us.

But there you have it. After years of studying and writing about the history of its varied (and admittedly bizarre) traditions, I’ve come to believe that Christmas is one of the most contradictory holidays anyone could dream up.

For starters, we all know that Jesus wasn’t really born on December 25, and that mistletoe swags and Christmas trees originated with pre-Christian Celtic pagans. Being of Celtic descent, I’m secretly proud of all the trimmings brought to the feast by my ancient ancestors. But I also know that the holiday itself was manufactured by Roman Catholics who wanted to convert the boisterous pagans to Christianity, so, voila, the Winter Solstice festival known as Saturnalia suddenly became Christmas. And so did all the over-the-top feasting and partying that went with it.

Fundamentalist Christians still insist that “Jesus is the reason for the season” — but when you look at the origin of this “holiest of holy days,” you can see that the “season” was also about something else, just as it is today.

Religious faith is not in question here. And I’m not suggesting a return to Winter Solstice revelry, though I think it’s lovely to acknowledge Mother Nature’s changing seasons. I’m just saying that it’s important to consider the origins of all that we choose to celebrate. A few ancient history lessons help to explain the seemingly random blending of Christmas customs such as baking cakes in the shape of yule logs with the tradition of buying computer games and toys for kids.  If Christmas is a time of reflection, we need think on those things too — and what they mean to us.

While I don’t feel a need to explain my religious views or church affiliation here, I do want to add that I have deep respect for Jesus and his teachings.

Which is, partly, why I wonder what the messiah would think of American Christmas rituals and the weird things we do under the guise of celebrating his honorary birthday. If Jesus were to stop by for Christmas dinner, for instance, would he feast on Grandma’s honey baked ham — a meat that’s forbidden by the Scriptures he upheld? (One of my Jewish friends and I had a great conversation about this recently.)  What would he think of all the stuff we buy? Would he be touched or appalled by all those garish plastic nativity scenes imported from China (or the blow-up Frosty the Snowman) displayed on our neighbors’ lawns? Just imagine.

I know there are others like me out there — weary folks who’d prefer to restore some sanity to what is, in essence, a beautiful holiday. I believe it would help if we could unload the emotional baggage and release some of the pressures that arrive in Santa’s sleigh along with all the presents.

A Christmas essay I wrote last year for David Crumm’s “Read the Spirit” explores my conflicted feelings about the season on a much deeper, personal level. I wrote the piece because I wanted my son to understand why I’ve struggled with Christmas every year.  Some of you read it last year, but new readers may have missed it. Please click here if you’d like to read it.

Meanwhile, I really hope you have a great Christmas, however you celebrate. I hope you have some time to be still, reflect, and know your blessings. Wishing you peace. –– Cindy La Ferle

Beat the Christmas blues

The discordance between our expectations of happiness and the emotional realities of the holidays is a major reason for the high incidence of depression at this time of year.” — Dr. Andrew Weil, Spontaneous Happiness

Does it feel like the world is throwing one big holiday party and you’re not invited? All those cheery TV commercials promoting holiday excess and family unity can seem downright cruel — especially to those enduring the loss of a loved one or a job, or the end of a marriage. If you suffer from the holiday blues, I wrote today’s column for you. Please click here to read it.