The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
It’s the happiest season of all - as Johnny Mathis sings in his iconic song. The holiday season is a time where the expectation to feel merry and bright is overwhelming. There is an expectation to spread Christmas cheer and love to all.
And while I don’t disagree with this - if you know anything about me, you know I’m a huge Christmas enthusiast with a slight obsession for festive decorations - the holidays, especially Christmas, can be exhausting, unpredictable, and difficult for someone experiencing grief and loss.
I was raised by parents of two religious practices and was lucky enough to experience both Chanukah and Christmas growing up. I have memories of lighting the menorah with my momma and sister, while my dad videotaped (we videotaped everything in the 90s, but who didn’t!?). I would sing along to the songs, not understanding a lick of what I was saying.
Now Christmas is another story. My dad LOVED Christmas, so in turn, I LOVE Christmas. To honor my momma, I vaguely remember calling our Christmas tree a “Chanukah bush” initially, before finally accepting that in reality, we had a full blown Christmas tree. We lined the driveway with candy canes, wrapped the trees in the yard with lights, and covered the windows with those cling stickers (who remembers these!?). I can only remember having a real tree one year. And after the cats destroyed it, we switched to artificial, pre-lit trees. And boy do I love those trees. I loved the tradition of going through the ornaments, putting the star on the top, and figuring out which single lightbulb was causing half the tree to go dark.
My mother was a nurse when I was in elementary school and she always worked on Christmas day. To make sure she could be a part of our Christmas, my sister and I were up before the sun to open presents before my mom would head to work. Although the memories are pieced together from over the years, I can vividly see my dad holding the video recorder as we ran down the stairs from our room to the Christmas tree. Then, he would set the camera on a tripod and assist with opening boxes and directing us. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure I inherited a lotttt of my Type-A personality from my dad; always organized, even on Christmas. I can see my mom sitting on the couch, watching my sister and I tear into our new treasures. This particular year, it was the Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream Maker that I SWORE Santa was going to bring. And I was right.
We were a big stocking family too, always full of fun little necessities and extras. One year, Santa brought me a stocking twice the size of me at 7-years-old, FULL OF BEANIE BABIES. All in their own little holders. Oh, the sweet innocence of childhood.
After my sister went to college and my mom became ill, dad tried to hang on to the Jewish traditions and practices. We would light the menorah and attempt to sing the song neither of us truly understood (sorry mom!). But, my dad never stopped going all out for Christmas. The supply of light-up reindeer multiplied every year, with rope light trees dotting the yard, and decorations all over the house.
Even so, I wasn’t home a lot at Christmas after my mom got sick. Our traditions of opening presents and videotaping Christmas morning dwindled the older I got, and I longed for that Christmas morning excitement. In high school, I spent holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas at my best friend’s house. My dad and I would celebrate our small Christmas either on Christmas Eve or the day after Christmas.
Looking back, I can now see how hard that had to be for my dad. To acknowledge that he could not fill the void that was missing from my mom’s inability to participate in Christmas traditions. Or that we couldn’t afford as much as we once used to. My dad sacrificed so much of his own happiness, especially around the holidays, for mine. Letting me spend the night at my best friends’, where we would struggle to fall asleep then wake up at the crack of dawn all in honor of Christmas joy. Through all of this, my dad never skipped a beat on decorations. The decorations in the yard were bigger and better every year. He also collected Nutcrackers, and our living room was filled to the brim - in an organized, neat manner of course.
I have now inherited all of these decorations, including the extensive Nutcracker collection. Along with our childhood decorations; stockings, ceramic Christmas trees, musical trees, and so much more. And while I don’t live in a house yet, I fill my small, downtown apartment with as many of these decorations as I can, without overdoing it (maybe).
And as I take out the Nutcrackers and family ornaments this year, I think about what Christmas would be like today if my parents were still here. I wonder if my mom would have put her foot down on the number of Nutcrackers, or if we would have an even split of Chanukah and Christmas decorations. More specifically, I think about what Christmas would be like if my dad had not left this Earth two years ago. It may be my second Christmas without him, but the reality still hasn’t truly hit me. No I haven’t thought about what gift I’d buy for my dad, but the reality of him no longer being here to give and receive gifts is a constant, low humming thought in the back of my mind. I still buy a Nutcracker every year, to continue this tradition and honor him.
The funny thing about grief, and what I wish more people knew about it, is that grief isn’t something that just shows up during the holidays. It hasn’t been packed away with the Nutcrackers in a plastic bin, awaiting the day after Thanksgiving (if you’re lucky) to be exposed. No, no. Grief is something that you carry with you, always. Every. Single. Day. Some days my grief remains quite in its home in my heart. It may wake up and move around some, but it doesn’t make much of a fuss. Other days, it roars. It throws itself into the walls of my body, pushing against the barriers I’ve put up to contain it. And on those days, when one more blow causes a crack in the walls, I let it out. The holidays you see, are when our grief for many of us, has a much harder time remaining calm within its home. It becomes restless after being kept locked away for most of the year. Life does not stop for grief. Although I sometimes wish it could. Grief is an exhausting and unpredictable beast.
For those of you experiencing grief and loss during this holiday season, please know I am with you and I share in your uncertainty of what this season brings. I am remembering that it is okay to not have it all together and we shouldn't expect ourselves to. Forgiving yourself and allowing yourself to experience sadness during what many people, including myself, feel is the most wonderful time of the year, is crucial. For those who have a friend or loved one experiencing loss, I encourage you to reach out. Offer words of acknowledgement that you may not understand what they are experiencing, but you can understand how difficult the holidays must be. Or simply, wrap one final item: your arms around someone grieving a loss.
Please remember to take care of yourself this holiday season. You do not have to keep grief locked away. I know my grief enjoys the Christmas lights, too.
And with that I say, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all, and to all a good night!
Check out these articles for more on coping with grief during the holidays. I had the honor of contributing and working with other women who too, are experiencing the loss of a loved one.