Left to my own devices, I would ignore Christmas. But as the mother of two small children who are becoming more aware, and extremely excited, about the season, it is not possible. Being a mother around Christmas time means being dragged into the season, and I endure it like I do their love of Yo Gabba Gabba.
I do remember being that young and feeling something special about the season. I remember baking cookies with my mom, dancing to Christmas carols by the light of the tree, the joy that came with visiting Santa at the mall, looking at lights, and enjoying how Christmassy everything felt.
When I was twelve one of my teachers had us write an answer to a journal prompt every day, and one of the questions was to describe how you feel about Christmas. Even as I answered with the standard: I love Christmas, it’s my favorite time of the year, blah, blah, blah, I realized I was being dishonest. The fact of the matter was that I wasn’t feeling the Christmas spirit that year. But it was early, I thought. It will come.
I was wrong. From the age of 12 onward, Christmas became something I started to hate for several years until I got to where I am now, which is a begrudging tolerance.
Was it the hormone changes that signal the onset of puberty? Looking back I believe it had a part in it. Along with a cynical that I was starting to develop that slowly strangled my idealism.
Later that teacher had us write a prompt about someone who hated Christmas, and I struggled. Even in my liberal, atheist family it was unfathomable to not love Christmas. My mom is one of those people who adores the holiday and goes all gung-ho. Everyone I knew loved that holiday. Little did I realize I would become that person who starts to hate that holiday. And the fact that I didn’t know anyone else who disliked it left me feeling alone and confused about where these feelings were coming from.
The easiest thing for me to understand is my hatred of the music. My mom loves Christmas music, and during the month of December, would play it continuously, non stop (my grandmother, her mom, is even worse, and will play it in July). On the home stereo. On the car radio. My musical tastes are varied, but they do tend towards snobby Lilith Fair artists with deep, introspective lyrics. Lisa Loeb’s songs described my life as a teenager. To me, Lisa Loeb described how I felt. It was almost like she knew me. I loved the rage in Sinead O’Connor’s songs. Shawn Colvin, Fionna Apple, Alanis Morisette. I played their albums constantly.
But in December, I was tortured with rendition after rendition of Up on the Housetop, Ruduloph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and Santa Claus is Coming to town, or, the absolute worst, the damned Chipmunks singing “Christmas Time is Here.” I would go into a rage every time I was forced to listen to that last one. I could not stand it. Why would someone want to listen to aggravating, high pitched Chipmunks singing!? How the *bleep* can Christmas be late!? Who the eff cares if you get the hula hoop!?
The snob in me hated the simple, mind numbing lyrics. Music was about pouring out your anguished soul in the form of beautiful poetry, not the trite crap. I remember one night when sitting in the car looking at Christmas lights (something we did every year) while another overproduced version of some Christmas staple came on and wanting to open the door and throw myself out of the car. The impulse and desire to escape and the feeling of being trapped in a torture chamber blaring Christmas music left a stamp on me. I just stared straight out of the window and hoped no one would notice that I was doing my best to keep from screaming.
Shockingly, as an atheist, I actually like the hymns better. Lorena McKinnett has an amazing version of Good King Wenceslaus that I could tolerate even then. I do like folks music and the arrangements were beautiful. I think a large part was the music snob in me. Let’s say as an adult, I am very choosy about the quality of the Christmas music I play, and even then it’s in moderation.
It wasn’t just the music, though. I was trained as a babysitter to work with special needs children by a local nonprofit, and at the Christmas party I remember getting into a mood. I was miserable. I wanted to leave. I hated the stupid Christmas tree. I hated the stupid decorations. I even hated the stupid Santas. I hated trying to hide the fact that I hated everything about Christmas. The only thing that drew my mind away from how miserable I was was wondering if the boy I realized had a crush on me was going to make a move. I don’t think I liked him, but I wanted to have a boyfriend so desperately because it would be cool that if he did make a move I would have gone with it and at least had something to tell my friends the next day.
I remember finding a quiet place to mope away from the rest of the party and he found me there, moping. There was a moment of silence and he seemed to be steeling himself for something. And then the rest of the party found us. Anything that could have happened to have made my evening more interesting was skewered, and I went back to being a miserable, hormonal teenager hating Christmas in a room where everyone else was celebrating it.
While Christmas was joyous as a child, as a teenager, it was a miserable time of the year for me. The music, the forced gaiety, how crass so much of it could be. I remember the first day of Christmas break during my senior year. I just wanted to do some fun reading (I was a hardcore academic), but my mom wanted me to come out and decorate cookies while we listened to Christmas music. Generally my mom let me do what I want, and in respect I kept out of trouble because of the wide berth she gave me. But that afternoon we came to loggerheads when she got upset because I kept running back to my room and my book. Likely she was feeling the fact that I would be going off to college in a few months and she wanted to experience all the Christmas traditions one last time, but as a 17 year old riding a particularly nasty anti-Christmas mood (who also hated baking) I just could not grin and bear it.
I don’t think my mom realized how torturous Christmas became for me, or how if I was alone with either my dad or my sister in the car we would look at each other and say, “turn the station to ANYTHING but Christmas music” and then switch it back to the Christmas station when we left. I think the three of us realized that the Christmas traditions were important to my mom and her happiness, but my sister and I had long outgrown them, but we didn’t want her to know that so we just grinned and bore it. Looking back, we likely should have just said we were teenagers and growing out of it, but I think neither of us wanted to hurt her because it was obvious how much she loved doing Christmas for us.
In college I went through a Christmas detox period, or as much as you can in the US. No decorations, no tree, no damned Christmas music aside from what I had to endure while working as a grocery store cashier. Well meaning relatives kept giving me decorations, mini-trees, and CDs, gushing about how they felt sorry for me enduring Christmas without all of the paraphernalia. I stashed it all inside a box in the closet. Eventually people stopped giving stuff. It was several years of getting away from Christmas as much as possible. There were still the family events and gatherings, but in my own home it was a haven from the season.
I sort of started letting Christmas back into my life the year Andy and I got engaged. But there were firm boundaries with it. And if I didn’t feel like doing it during a particular year, then Andy wasn’t going to argue with me. His brother died on Thanksgiving in a freak accident, so holidays aren’t a joyous time for him.
But there’s the thing. I can totally understand why Andy would dislike Christmas. Losing a loved one on Thanksgiving is the height of cruel irony, and having to undergo the subsequent Christmas season in the shadow would be traumatic. Andy was nine when his brother died, and it’s also when he started having firm memories, so likely his earliest Christmas memories are of grieving during a time when everything is supposed to be happy and bright. It’s the most wonderful time of the year and all that jazz. That’s one of those things that is so traumatic that it would be enough to turn even the most ardent Christmas fan into a grinch.
But for me? All I’ve got is hormones, my dread of crowded and parties and seeing my in-laws, and my music snobbery. And it’s not a satisfying answer to why at best I just tolerate the season.
That said, I do think the discongruence between what the holiday is and reality plays a factor in it. It’s the time of peace on earth, good will to all. But is it?
We are plagued with wars. While some of us are feasting, other people are starving. And in the wake of this election, hatred has become an American value and people are experiencing bullying and harassment because of their skin color or sexual orientation in higher rates, and things just don’t seem friendly, warm, accepting, or Christmassy. It feels like survival mode.
My mom always said that we embrace Christmas because of the values of peace and goodwill to all. At some point I bought it, but I think when those hormones started flowing as a teenager I became angry that this idealized version wasn’t real. It was a fake charade, just like the fake snow that Texans will pay five dollars for their kids to frollick in for five minutes. It’s hard to celebrate peace and goodwill when it doesn’t exist. More and more, Christmas seems to me to be a time to reflect, observe, and mourn how far we have to go.