Christmas Eve used to be for decorating the Christmas tree. Now my artificial tree sits in its corner, nicely trimmed, for over two weeks. Different place, different times, different traditions. But back then, I couldn’t wait for my mother to arrive, usually on December 23rd; and in my very young mind, the fact that we had to decorate the tree together on the 24th was somehow a promise that she would always be there for Christmas.
Those are my earliest Christmas memories. For the little girl that I was, the holiday season was truly a magical time, filled with songs, presents, delicious food, trips to a snowy countryside, but most of all, with my mother. There were cracks in that perfect Christmas tableau, but I was too young to notice them or to care about them when they occasionally became wide gaps about to swallow me.
When my grandmother went to the post office shortly before Christmas, I knew my mother was not planning on spending the holidays with us. She cleverly distracted me on the phone every time, avoiding my direct questions and would only admit she wasn’t coming at the very last minute. From one holiday season to another, I went from tears to anger to furry intertwined with occasional happiness…. and many years later, to acceptance and contentment.
But back then, my mother’s presence – or absence – defined my Christmas in more ways than one. I first got very angry with my grandmother when I heard her pointing out we were her least favourite option. But like it or not, I had to admit she wasn’t wrong, and my mother played her “last minute” card very efficiently, sometimes showing up on Christmas or New Year’s Eve when her other plans fell through. That was the moment when I was supposed to cancel all my plans and just be with her, considering her presence to be my most precious gift. The stubborn opinionated angry teenager that I was would take that less than well…
My mother was counting on me to be the grownup between the two us, and to always “understand” her; that takes a toll on a child. How big a toll… I only fully acknowledged at some point in my late twenties, when I finally put an end to many of our destructive holiday (and not only) antics.
Now Christmas Eve is for taking a metaphorical deep breath, while slowing down and appreciating what I have. It’s for a few final culinary touch-ups, because I like to get everything ready in order to avoid last minute pressure and frustration. It’s for relaxing with a glass of red wine, mindlessly staring at the tree while listening to Christmas songs. It’s for taking a long bath, for choosing a nice outfit and doing my hair, even if I’m not going to any party. It’s for sharing it with someone I love, my real family, the one I made for myself, not the one I was born in. It’s not always possible to be together – even without a pandemic – but that’s OK, because the feelings are just as strong.
So what’s my highly convoluted point? A very simple one, really. The notion of holiday “normality” and “celebration” is a fluid one, even in “normal” times. Not only does it take different shapes for different people, but it changes and evolves for each one of us as we grow and seasons pass.
In my corner of the world, this holiday season is being spent in lockdown. Almost no holiday lights in town, but on those occasions I had to go out, I noticed more lights and decorations in people’s windows. In spite of anger, loss, frustration, ignorance, denial and disobedience, we try to cope with the situation, to adapt and survive it.
So what’s part of my 2020 holiday survival kit?
Gratitude – I and those dear to me still have our health. I am not alone. There are still presents under the tree and I found it in me to put up a tree, cook and bake traditional goodies, even if this December was one step away from turning very bleak for me.
A nice gesture – for someone I don’t necessarily like that much, but who is going through a difficult time. Check.
Patience – first and foremost, with myself. Negative emotions are acceptable and normal, especially under the circumstances.
Memories – even as a helpless child, I was able to come up with little Christmas moments to enjoy and later on cherish, almost every year. My group of friends and I usually managed to do something special on the holidays, even if not with our families. I have also reached the point where I can sift through the good times I had with my family and appreciate them, even if they don’t outweigh the bad ones.
Appreciation – not only of what I have, but of those who matter most for me, those wonderful people I love, who also cherish me.
Then there are all those smaller ways, like escaping into one’s hobbies – writing, reading, photography, etc. I love taking photos, but I’m really an opportunist, I shoot whatever I find that is already there and appealing to me; I don’t create them, as I lack both the talent and the patience. But if a lockdown isn’t the time to try some new creative indoor activities, then what is? So yes, even if they’re far from perfect, I did have some fun taking the photos I’m sharing today for the Lens Artists Challenge – And Here Comes the Holiday Season – hosted by Ann-Christine. I sincerely hope our Lens Artists hosts know how much we appreciate them for their talent and the inspiration they provide, especially in a year like this one, when we so needed to hold on to our creativity in order to preserve our mental health.
They may not be the prettiest things, they are far from the most delicious or healthiest sweets, but those colourfully wrapped chocolates do mean something. In my neck of the woods, those used to be Christmas tree chocolates (they still are, but they’re no longer fashionable). I occasionally buy them, hang them in the tree and even eat a couple for the nostalgic aftertaste. I was born in the ’80s in a communist country, where even the most terribly tasting candy was still a treat for us, children, as the good stuff was almost impossible to come by. I was in some ways a privileged child, and access to nice toys and yummy treats by means of my mother’s friends in the ballet (their company toured abroad) was one such way. I got a Barbie doll for Christmas when none of my friends knew what a Barbie doll was. Then, one year, instead of hanging the traditional local chocolates in the Christmas tree, one of my mother’s friends sent me this miraculous bag of Snickers, Mars and Bounty bars. All my little friends marvelled at the sweets hanging in our tree and I resisted devouring them until the tree was down.
Something so mundane to children in other countries was a miracle to most of us in the ’80s. Our families had to make all sorts of efforts in order to put together a bountiful Christmas feast… and “bountiful” then would be almost laughable now. And yet, we managed to be happy, even with less. My point? Human kind has been through much worse than holidays in lockdown, so perhaps those of us who still have our health, our loved ones, our homes and our full bellies should stop complaining so much and figure out how to deal with the situation…
Now it’s time for me to go on with my other Christmas Eve activities. Be safe and be there for those who need you… let them be there for you too, even if it’s from afar. Distance doesn’t destroy feelings, but absence and selfishness often do.
Safe and Happy Holidays, everyone… as happy as they can be!