Holidays become harder as we age because, unlike Santa, we’re not carrying presents. We’re carrying pasts.
We carry not only our pasts but also the pasts of others. The pressure, weight and gravity of those no longer in our lives are usually the most difficult to bear.
I miss my father at Christmas even though he never really liked the whole sentimentalized song-and-dance of the season. He hated Bing Crosby and loathed Andy Williams. My father was not big on guys with grins and crew neck sweaters.
Although he liked Nat King Cole, my father couldn’t stand “The Christmas Song.” He made fun of the earnest lyrics. “If tiny tots have their eyes all aglow you better check the liquor cabinet,” said my old man.
In Brooklyn, we didn’t have chestnuts roasting on an open fire; we had uncles barbecuing sausage in the freezing backyard. They wanted to get away from the aunts and the tots in the kitchen.
More than four decades after her death, I still wish I could comfort my emotionally fragile mother whose anxiety about the possible inadequacies of her own dinners and gifts overshadowed the pleasures offered to her by snow and the ceremonies of the church. Christmas wasn’t easy for her.
Most members of my mother’s large family, with whom she had a complex, fraught and competitive relationship, still lived in Canada. We didn’t get together very often and when we did, we remembered why. Her sisters were ruthless. Cousin was pitted against cousin:
“Gina’s in a school play.”
“So? Freda wrote the school play.”
Between both sides, I have 51 first cousins. I’m not in touch with them. Twenty years ago I felt guilty about it, but not anymore. I gave them, and myself, a break.
While there were some happy memories from the big family days, the thought of imitating them or attempting to recreate them terrifies me. They were part of my life once. But I have now given myself permission to shelve them, along with the over-sized, black-paged photograph albums where Kodak pictures from those holidays are kept, in a quiet room.
Recent wounds are inevitably more painful. My Facebook friend Marsha Wight Wise said, “Last year I had a get-out-of-Christmas-free pass” because her mother had just died. This year, she fears, will be tougher because, “Right after she died, I was allowed to be sad. This year I think I’m expected to be chipper. I have one husband and three teenage boys. I think I have to be the engineer of Christmas and am responsible for their happiness.”
But here’s the truth: We are allowed to forgo the festivities if we choose and we all have permission to wave goodbye to rituals that no longer meet our needs. I can send you a note with these words on it if you need to carry a reminder to ward off the guilt.
Seeing a need to “do” the holidays in these terms is what makes the holidays seem like doing hard time. The very idea of meeting someone else’s expectations or needs leads some of us to proffer false emotions and empty promises while attempting to sustain a sense of composure more brittle than thin ice.
People don’t have to be gone from the planet — or be one of my cousins — to be off the radar. Divorce, disconnection and distance can feel as irrevocable as death. Ask anybody who has experienced a decisive split with a spouse or sibling. Traces of earlier days are easier to tumble over this time of year.
We retrieve old memories the way we bring out old decorations — more out of habit than desire. Perhaps we need to choose more carefully.
Nostalgia, like cheap candy, is sticky and often stale.
So why hasn’t the blueprint for the season been updated and upgraded? We’re taking Lyft, not a sleigh, to Grandma’s house. If Grandma’s living over the river it’s because she’s moved back to the city and bought a co-op with her new partner Pat.
Don’t sigh over the golden days of yore. (My father would have said, “The golden days of your what?”)
Leave the past to the past. Celebrate the here and the now. Open the present.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” and eight other books. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com.
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