When I was little, I was crazy about Christmas. What kid wouldn’t be when they were fortunate enough to grow up in a stable, loving family environment with two parents who were crazy about each other, four adoring grandparents who spoiled them silly in every sense of the word (all the hugs and kisses you could want and sweets and toys galore), aunts, uncles and cousins to goof around with and nothing in the world to worry them. I remember that the two weeks I had off from school at Christmas every year were so completely different from the rest of the year, they were so filled with love and fun and magic that by the time I went back to school, I felt like I had been out of my routine for a solid year.
Things changed early in my teenage years though. My maternal grandparents, who had been central to my upbringing and had showered me with more affection than words can express, moved to California when my grandfather got his last transfer before he retired (yes, I had very young grandparents, they were all in their early to mid 50s when I was born). I was fourteen at the time and I cried for weeks after they left and after that, Christmas was never the same. They split their holidays between my family in Montreal and my aunt’s family in Toronto, so one year they would spend Christmas with us and do New Year’s in Toronto and the following year it would be the other way around. It was a huge change for me and that is when I started feeling lonely at Christmas. It got far worse when my parents split up about five years after my grandparents moved away. I decided to live with my mother, but my brother moved in with my father when he eventually got his own place and family tiffs would begin months in advance over who was going to celebrate Christmas when and with whom on the years when my maternal grandparents were in town. Unfortunately my brother and I were not in a situation where where big collective family Christmases were an option. I often ended up in tears and I would even get snappish with my grandmothers when they would start talking about the Holiday arrangements at the end of Summer.
I was hoping that things would get better once I moved out on my own, but they only got worse. I would end up alone on Christmas Eve every other year and wouldn’t see any family at all until Christmas Day and would then be alone again until New Year’s Day. I very rarely had anyone to celebrate with on New Year’s Eve. I tried going out for walks in Mount Royal Park or to the movies in town to break the monotony of it all, but I would return home feeling more depressed than ever because all I would see everywhere were families celebrating the Holidays together. Let me tell you this: being alone at the Holidays is the worst kind of solitude you can feel. It gets to the point where you just was to lock yourself away in your home with nary a Christmas decoration in sight until the whole thing is over because everywhere you are, you are hit in the face with images of what you do not have: someone to share it with. Even when I worked through Christmas Eve I would feel unbearable lonely the minute my shift was over at 2:00 A.M. because most of my colleagues were heading straight off to join their family celebrations and I was getting on the bus home back to my apartment, which was empty except for my cats. I would get home, curl up with my cats and cry.
Then the worst thing of all happened: my father died. He was so unwell on Christmas Day in 2012 that he wasn’t able to join us at my aunt and uncle’s place. We decided to have a second Christmas celebration for him on Epiphany (January 6th) and he barely made it to that. He passed away about three weeks later.
At this point, I had had it with Christmas and when it came time to chose my vacation dates for 2013-2014 I decided to not take the week between Christmas and New Year’s off. I couldn’t have guessed that by the time Christmas rolled around, I would have had a burn out and quit my full-time job and also that my Darling would finally have decided that he was willing to put me through the introduction process into his very traditional Polish family, but I am so infinitely grateful that he did, because I don’t know how I would have made it through my first Christmas without my father otherwise.
I am slowly beginning to reconcile myself with Christmas, but it has not been easy. I have yet to wake up on Christmas Eve without crying and even though my in-laws, especially my mother in-law, do their best to make me feel welcome at their Christmas Eve celebration and my nieces and nephew fill the evening with cheer, they are not my traditions and I feel slightly out of place and oh-so nostalgic for the Christmas Eves of my childhood. The ones where my maternal grandparents would bring my brother and I to Midnight mass ahead of our parents so that my parents could help Santa lay out our gifts. I miss sitting around the tree with my family, I miss singing carols at church with them. I miss the later traditions as well, the ones we barely got used to, like my father handing out the gifts at my aunt and uncle’s place. I miss seeing his handwriting on his gift labels and reading the Christmas card he would send me. I inherited all of his Christmas ornaments though, all the ones I grew up with. Now that my Darling has moved in with me, we have gotten a natural Christmas tree two years in a row (no way could I have gotten one of them into my home by myself!) . It has done wonders for me to be able to have a real tree like I did when I was little and to hang so many of the ornaments I remember from my childhood in it along with my own.
Along with his ornaments, I inherited my father’s collection of CDs, including his Christmas albums and I created a huge, hours long playlist with his Christmas music and mine last year. Among them are pieces from a recording of a concert we attended together at Notre-Dame Basilica featuring Bruno Pelletier accompanied by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in 2003.
I have also started writing and sending out my own Christmas cards and I always, always bring Christmas wreaths to my father and grandfather at the cemetery and ask my father to help me be happy and my grandfather to help my grandmother.
I know that compared to others I am very fortunate. I have happy memories of Christmas from my childhood and have always had someone to celebrate with on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Some people have never even had that or have had it very rarely. That’s what makes the holidays so bittersweet though, having had so much happiness and then losing it and trying to get it back. What I am coming to terms with is that Christmas will never be as it was when I was little. The best I can do is to take those wonderful memories, cherish them and use them to create my own happy Christmases. I am striving to do that. It doesn’t mean that I can’t be sad or miss my loved ones, it wouldn’t be normal if I didn’t miss them, but I can also show them what I am doing to keep sharing Christmas with them even though they are no longer here or, for my aunts and uncles and cousins, that I am thinking of them even though we spend the holidays far apart. It may not be easy, but it is a start and I’m hoping to smile a bit more and cry a bit less every year.