I don’t get a tree or decorate my apartment. Christmas music drives me bonkers, and not in a good way.
Many times, I have referred to myself as The Grinch, but I don’t hate Christmas; I just can’t find a way to enjoy it.
I used to *love* Christmas. As a child my life was divided into the half of the year when I eagerly anticipated my family’s annual trip to Nags Head, and the half when I couldn’t wait for Christmas.
Christmas was easier then, of course. I mean, come on: PRESENTS! Relatives bearing hugs and gifts seemed to arrive every day for a week, expecting nothing from me but a happy “thank you!” And church was pretty (if still dull to me). Candles! Flowers! Cookies!
Where did it go? How did I lose my Christmas spirit? Can I get it back?
I don’t know. I might know. I have no idea.
In that order.
When I was sixteen, my beloved aunt and godmother died suddenly and unexpectedly. Her death was the first loss of my life and more than half a lifetime later, I can’t think about losing Aunt Mar without tears filling my eyes. Her death occurred at the end of August 1990 and when Christmas rolled around months later, none of us seemed to know what to do. She was the cheerful, loving glue that held together not just my maternal side of the family, but also the paternal. Everyone adored Aunt Mar.
1990 also represented the first year that I was no longer the baby of the family. Earlier that year, my first cousin had given birth to her daughter and as a sixteen year old, I loved caring for her: bottles, burps, outfit selection and even diaper changes. She was such a darling, easy baby. A beautiful girl with the faintest hint of fuzzy blonde hair and blue eyes. I took a photo of Aunt Mar holding my little cousin that year during Easter. It is the only photo I can find of their briefly overlapping lives.
That Christmas, I remember wanting to run away from my family and the holiday, so badly. I couldn’t escape the grief of my family. It seemed like someone was always crying. During Christmas Eve services at church, my mother struggled – most unsuccessfully – to control her sobs. I hated seeing her cry; wasn’t at all used to it. My emotions were on hold. If we all fell apart, what would become of us?
I think that’s the time in my life when I grew up the most. And maybe I grew a bit cold.
We got through that first Christmas without Aunt Mar and I threw myself into what remained of my senior year. My last prom, a serious boyfriend, my last high school final. College loomed. I was both scared and excited to leave home, and wished for my aunt’s uncomplicated guidance. Telling my parents of my fears didn’t seem right. They were nervous enough about me leaving.
As an only child, I had never shared much and certainly not a room. Suddenly I lived in a 12×12 room with a stranger from Syracuse. As lovely as Jill was (and is; we’re still in touch thanks to Facebook), the lack of privacy too often brought out the worst in me: irritable, selfish and stubborn.
At Cornell, one of my first lectures was by Dr. Will Provine. He spoke about evolution, atheism, free will and more. Doubts I had long carried about my professed faith, but not given voice to, were addressed. My 17 year old mind was blown. I remember calling my parents to share these revelations with them. It did not go well.
I had long wished to stop going to church. I hated it, but being a dutiful daughter, joined my mother most Sundays. It grew harder for me to go to church with each passing year. Even the relatively liberal United Methodist Church I attended with my mother was too much for me. Periodically missionaries would return from remote parts of the world and I’d think “you should leave those people alone.” Dad, raised Catholic, begged off except for Christmas and Easter, and I envied him.
On some level, I knew I didn’t believe even as a young girl.
But affirming that meant stripping away other comforting beliefs: no Heaven. No guardian angels. No reincarnation. And most importantly, no thought that I would be reunited with Aunt Mar ever except in my still-common dreams of her.
My aunt died more than twenty one years ago and yet her voice in my head is so strong. My dreams of her usually play out as follows:
I’m reunited with her.
She acts lovingly, but casually, toward me. As if she had always just been there waiting for me to discover her.
I break down. First I cry tears of sorrow for the lost years and the barely-managed need to connect with her that I struggled with through college and the first years of my independent young adult life. Then I cry tears of joy for being able to wrap my arms around her again.
I can’t stop crying — in the dreams or as I write this.
It looks like I know how I lost the Christmas spirit. The story has been inside me all along. Now what? That question I still haven’t answered. Maybe a break from tradition would help.