That yuletide thing

Love can make you greedy.

I know this idea flies in the face of that famous Bible scripture that you always hear at weddings, “Love is patient, love is kind…” Don’t get me wrong. I get that message. And I even aspire to that kind of patience. I aspire to be that free of my own selfish desires. But I’m not.

And I don’t think I’m alone.

Every year around this time all means of pop culture — TV, movies, radio, background mall music, Internet banner ads — start streaming Christmas cheer. It’s a jolly, holly holiday season after all and we don’t want a blue Christmas! (Actually, if I understand it right, we want to be home for a white Christmas, that is the stuff of our dreams.)

Basically it boils down to this simple equation: Warm-and-fuzzy Family + Optimal White Christmas Locale (or suitable facsimile) + Presents Wrapped Under Tree = BEST HOLIDAY EVER! (Repeat: Every single year. No exceptions.)

Message received loud and clear!

But what if you don’t have a warm-and-fuzzy family unit? What if you live in the desert and get no snow? What if there is no money for presents wrapped under the tree? (Or, what if you don’t celebrate Christmas at all? The horror!) That would be a quandary, wouldn’t it. One I have faced, in one way or another, every year of my life. And I don’t think my lack of math skills have anything to do with why this equation is so impossible for me!

Luckily, I’m not afraid of new math.

It probably started in bits and pieces when I met my now-husband 20 years ago. (We’re high school sweethearts.) I had grown up a welfare kid, the product of divorced parents and abusive experiences. I still remember grocery shopping on food stamps, back when generics were segregated to their own aisle and were shamingly labeled in plain white paper with bold black letters (TOMATO SOUP, CUT GREEN BEANS, BEEF STEW). Just being caught in that aisle was a humiliation.

When you are living so close to the line between shelter and no shelter or hot water or no hot water, the extravagance of Christmas feels almost like a kick in the head. Or maybe it’s just the heart. And you can’t avoid it. It’s there every time you turn on the TV (even the old little black-and-white one with rabbit ears), every trip to the mailbox loaded with ads, every day at school as the other kids dreamed up their lists. Lists. Ha! That’s rich! No, really, you must be rich.

When I met my now-husband, I didn’t know anyone who had “real” Christmas. Sure, I lived in Alaska, so there was plenty of “White Christmas” to go around. And I knew people who could count a bounty of gifts under the tree. But I had scarcely ever met a warm-and-fuzzy family. I was pretty sure those were the stuff of TV legend.

You see, by the time I met my now-husband, each of my parents were working on their second divorces. I had not seen my father in about eight years (it would be almost 10 before we were reunited). I had suffered sexual abuse by someone in my own family for nine years. And then, of course, I had been poor and living in a rural wasteland on top of it. So, to meet a family unit with two parents who did not have scary fights, drink, hit or otherwise abuse their children or each other, was like walking into Oz. I did not know where I was. I had no way to navigate that terrain. And it would take me several years to adjust my bearings. And it would take me still a few more years to understand the full measure of the kindness of love.

So 14 and a half years ago I married my husband. And since then, we have celebrated the holidays lots of different ways, depending on what life had in mind. We have celebrated just the two of us. We’ve celebrated with our friends — the “family” who live near us. Often we have celebrated with his family, because as anyone with divorced parents know, it is incredibly difficult to navigate holidays between parents (even as adults). In a lot of ways, it’s all just the last burnt fall-out from the charred remains of my childhood.

For a long time I didn’t see the point of all the hoopla. I played along for friends and family who adore Christmas, because I want them to feel happy. But all along I’d just have this kind of, “So what?” feeling inside. Maybe it just took me longer than most people to get over so much pain from my past. I’m sure part of it is that I will never feel completely comfortable with ostentatious over-abundance or the cacophony of soooo much cheeeeer. It just feels false to me. No one is that happy about something that is really just an elaborate game. (Let’s face it, holidays are like daylight savings. We’re all just agreeing that this is the time of day. We are all just agreeing that this time of year “means” these things. It’s a hive-mind state. I’m not saying that it’s not fun. Just be honest about it.)

A lot changed for me when my father-in-law got sick with terminal, pancreatic cancer and died. He was diagnosed in October and therefore was sick throughout that holiday season. Christmas had always been really important to him and my mother-in-law. Suddenly, everyone was very aware of time. Time together. Time left. That became the most important Christmas, ever. And not because it had to be perfect. But just because it would be the last of its kind. We would never have my father-in-law’s presence at Christmas again. But it really just highlighted the fact that we were losing him for all the days we all had left.

I know everyone experienced that moment in our family in their own ways. For instance, my sister-in-law had already lost her father to illness. I had lost my best friend in high school to a car accident a week before Christmas. And I had grown up with a mother who hated Christmas because her father died during the holidays. Was Christmas just cursed?

But somehow, I found a whole different direction in that experience. I began to understand — truly understand — how important these made-up things like holidays are for other people. And that we can find meaning in them for ourselves, if we want to. I’m not going to say that Christmas is now my favorite holiday. But I get that celebrating it can be an act of love, if not for yourself, then for others. It’s a kindness.

Because, just like the songs suggest, Christmas is our own personal time capsule about the foundation of who we are. It’s about where we come from, the kinds of families we have/had, the beliefs we were raised by, the lessons of the era of our age. This is why it’s so loaded with baggage for the broken-home lot (like me) and so filled with joy for people like my in-laws.

What I had not been able to see before the tragedy in my family was that, in fact, I had found my warm-and-fuzzy family. They had been with me for a long time. I just didn’t see it for all the wrapped presents under the tree.

So this is the Christmas spirit that I hear so much about? I think the Grinch and I should meet for coffee.

And now that we have a child of our own, my husband and I want to try and build traditions for our daughter. She’s only 18 months old now, so we still have a little wiggle room to figure out what feels right for us. But I feel like that window is closing. This time next year, we will want to start establishing the patterns that will define her childhood.

To that end, I had my father out for the Thanksgiving holiday this year. The emotional work of reuniting with him after being estranged for so long is, well, long behind us. Today we enjoy a good relationship that adds meaning to both our lives. And it is a joy for me to see him play with my daughter and think about the special bond they share.

But as I prepared Thanksgiving dinner, I was struck by the realization that I do not remember ever having a Thanksgiving dinner with my dad before. I’m sure I did as a small child, but I don’t remember it. And, in fact, I can only remember sharing one such meal with him — when we made a turkey feast in his small trailer my freshman year of college. As happy as I felt to be sharing Thanksgiving with my dad this year, it made the pang of this realization hurt that much more. I had to take a moment and grieve that sense of tradition and steadfast family that I never had all over again.

And that’s when I realized how greedy love — or at least my love — is. I feel greedy about every single moment with my daughter and my family. I feel greedy to have all the traditions and joy and laughter that there is to give her. I feel greedy for more love and more joy today because there were times in my life that I was living in the desert, even before I lived in the desert.

I don’t participate in Black Friday. I can’t stand the crowds or the gluttony. But this Thanksgiving I felt a different kind of coveting. A different kind of impatience for things I want. I want loving, warm-and-fuzzy family memories. Every holiday. Every day.

So I created a new equation for myself, and you can use it if you want: The Family Who Makes You Happy (biological or otherwise) + Healing Old Wounds + Generosity (of heart, of mind, and even of wallet, if that’s your thing) = LOVE (Repeat: As often as possible. Whenever possible.)

And in the meantime, I’ll work on being a little less greedy with my love.

 

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