When it’s Not a Happy Holiday

Merry Christmas! Happy New Year’s! Joyeux Noël! ‘Tis the season to feel really, really far out of line if you are anything but happy. And hence this post.

If you are as content this holiday season as the goat in the manger, feel free to skip this post!

If you are as content this holiday season as the goat in the manger, feel free to skip this post!

For many people, the holidays are not guaranteed to be a manger of belly laughs. Some churches are holding “Blue Christmas” services, services celebrating the liturgical season while allowing for grief and being generally “blue.” For people who have recently lost loved ones, the first (and second, and third…) holiday season can be almost traumatic; it’s the first holiday season without them.

There are other thefts of joy: difficult families, low finances, being alone during the season of togetherness. While I think it can be possible for the general cheer of the season to draw us out of personal woes, I also believe that unhappiness has its place, even in the holiday season. It’s not always possible to have the kind of chipper cheerio that seems to be requested–if not required–of the general populace this time of year. Sometimes feeling a little down can become magnified in juxtaposition to the celebratory atmosphere around us.

This year, for me, will be the first year I don’t sing Once in Royal David’s City as the prelude to my church’s Christmas Eve service since I was first asked to do it eleven years ago. Although the song takes less than five minutes to sing, it’s something many people in the congregation look forward to. For some regulars, my Christmas tradition–really the only one we have in my family–has become part of theirs.

While that feels like the most significant difference between this Christmas and previous Christmases, it’s also the first year I’m not going to be “home”–at all–for the holiday. Last year was the first year I had rum in my midnight eggnog; this year is the first year I won’t be standing around the kitchen island with my parents (and whomever else we’ve dragged in each year) drinking eggnog and eating as many chocolate-dipped apricots as possible before opening presents after church. I won’t have lit luminaries with my dad to form our part of the illuminated line down our street. I won’t wake up on Christmas morning with a stocking at the foot of my bed, placed there sometime in the middle of the night by my mother.

Looking back over recent Christmases, I can start to draw out some patterns. The eggnog, the luminaries, the stocking. My memories are grounded in repeated objects, repeated gestures, repeated scents and tastes and sounds. These patterns are true, to an extent, but they also serve to mask the underlying, inevitable changes constantly occurring regardless of our annual rituals.

For a few years, our little dog was part of the Christmas proceedings, even meriting his own little stocking one year. One year it snowed on Christmas Eve and when we took him out for his midnight walk–as soon as we got home from church–I remember letting him off the lead and racing him home in the snow swirling under the streetlamps with the most enduring of the luminaries still burning. That’s still one of my fondest memories, period. But the next year it didn’t snow. A few years later, we had had to put him down in May–he wasn’t around at Christmas at all.

Although our little family unit–me, mom, dad–has been a constant my entire life, we’ve had a different motley crew around each year for dinner and for church. One year we press-ganged so many of our dinner guests into singing with the church choir that they formed half the group. Other years it has just been us three. All of these configurations work. All of them are good.

From my own perspective, the most meaningful changes have been the ones that show progression. The first year I sang Once in Royal David’s City, I stood on a step stool and had to be miked. I couldn’t hold the descant against just my mother singing the melody line, let alone the entire congregation. I gradually stepped down from the step-stool, still reaching the microphone; then, the microphone was made redundant, too. Finally I learned the descant part and could sing it against my mother, then against my mother and the choir.

At dinner, my role has evolved to the point where I have taken an almost equal role with my mother and father; with guests, I am as much of a host as either my mother or father, rather than needing to be served or assisted as a child. There are fewer presents for me under the tree and more from me. I’ve gone from getting the virgin eggnog to being the one mixing the eggnog and getting the nutmeg just right.

A lot of this sense of progression has been positive. But a lot of this change is also terrifying and uncomfortable.  As I’ve written about before, I think about adulthood a lot. My job is to take care of two young children, so as I’m newly thinking of myself as an Adult, I’m simultaneously confronted with developing children on a daily basis. Watching the way they perceive the world, I sometimes have a pang of bitterness that the world doesn’t work the way they seem to think it does–that the world isn’t all about playing and eating food that magically propels itself onto the table.

The biggest difference between this year and all the years before it, for me, is finding myself totally outside the gravitational pull of my family home. While there are a lot of things I won’t miss (like spending a good part of the holiday in transit between sides of the family that live several hundred miles apart), this total break from the traditions of any previous years is jarring. I’m finding myself floundering, unsure of what is expected from me in my current circumstances, both from the family I current live with and my actual family, and my friends scattered across the globe.

Without the familiarity of the season, it is more difficult to get swept up in its sense of celebration. I feel a bit like I do when I completely mess up a reel in set dancing, or a page of music slips off the piano as I’m playing. It’s not tragic or irreparable, but I’m forced to concentrate differently–not on the spirit of the event, but on the how and where and when. Although most of the year feels like this constant churning of details and logistics, the holidays have always been a time when that pace is both quickened by special holiday preparations (the bazillion cookies?) and slowed by time off work, getting very little sleep, and spending a disproportionate amount of time with candles in church.

While I’m daily concerned with how the effects of global warming will manifest themselves in the next few decades, I think these changes will probably feel rather like this Christmas feels to me. It’s a little bit different than years past–in some ways wholly different–but there are traditions I can still grasp on to. I was able to sing the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City as a solo at the Anglican church I’ve been attending here in Lyon. The traditional French way of celebrating Christmas is remarkably close to my own family’s version, so my roadmap in that respect is not changing all that much.

Our technologies will change. Our food systems will reorganize and redevelop. Our housing preferences are already starting to align with more energy-efficient, adaptable building models. We are growing up, in a sense. But whether or not we mature collectively, we will be faced with different circumstances. We will find ourselves in a world that isn’t a science-fiction new reality, but rather a changed reality, one we can recognize and link to the past but which is undeniably different. We may find ourselves (as I am now) needing to be simultaneously more self-sufficient and more oriented towards larger communities.

We tend to think that global warming will be a problem for our children. Undoubtedly. But it will most likely also be a problem for us, especially if we are living in “the developing world” or anywhere near water. As a population, we are underprepared for the challenges ahead of us, yet individually I think we can still have some hope, not only because “people out there are working on it,” but because change and adaptation are rhythmic aspects of all living. The holidays are an especially good time to take a pause and consider not only our own circumstances–miserable (or joyful!) as they may be–but the world as a whole.

After all, the holiday after Christmas is the New Year–another chance, a time to embrace change.

And with that, I bid you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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