I've struggled with the holidays even before I was sick. I still don't have them sorted out. I've never managed either the Martha Stewart version or the Norman Rockwell version. Although I have tried to attain these on several occasions.
So here is some of my weird background:
- I come from England my family has very different ideas of the holidays from Hallmark et al. We don't have Thanksgiving. The house is decorated Christmas eve with a small tabletop tree and a few heirloom ornaments and the decorations stay up for the 12 days of Christmas. All of the kids' presents fit into a pillow case at the end of their beds. Only the rich upper class had the Dickens' version of Christmas. Being a blue collar family, we were more like a modern day Tiny Tim household.
- I emigrated to the US in 1969 which made family get togethers during the holidays an impossibility but our standard of living shot through the roof. I still remember the first Christmas here as a kid with a tree that hit the ceiling and more toys than I knew what to do with.
- Since we had no family in the States, one of my dad's coworkers adopted us and we spent the holidays with his large family. My sister and I would spend the entire visit running around the house with the four younger kids. The two older kids hung out with the grownups. Eventually we moved away and no longer spent holiday's with them.
- As I grew up my Dad's alcoholism took hold of him and by my teens he spent most holidays locked up in his bedroom blind drunk.
- So my sister, Mom and I rallied together and cooked, decorated and celebrated as a tight knit threesome. We had fun together and enjoyed the holidays despite my dad.
- Roughly about the time I started dating hubby Mom divorced which was a great relief to me. Dad had turned into a mean drunk who was verbally and occasionally physically abusive.
- Shortly after I got engaged my dad passed and my hubby's dad passed. We never met each others dads.
- I married into a huge family that had the oversized holidays that everyone attended. They were fun.
- Then ten years into our marriage, hubby's family had a huge fight and falling out and there were no more get togethers. I still miss huge family get togethers.
- Sister moved down south. Brother moved to Hawaii. Mom moved down south. Sister and Mom moved up north. Brother moved back to the Boston area but decides to spend all holidays with his wife's family.
- Three years ago hubby's Mom passed.
- Presently my Mom and sister are six hours away by car. Mom no longer drives. Sister's fiance doesn't like coming here because he gets bored. Hubby's family still doesn't do large get togethers. I haven't seen my brother in over two years.
Prior to getting ill, I worked 40-50 hours a week, played taxi mom and took care of the food, cooking and bills as my share of the house chores. I just didn't have time to decorate the entire house, cook breads, pies, cakes and multiple dinners even if it was only for three or four people. I did try, particularly after we bought our house ten years ago. I spent the first several years decorating for the holidays. After doing all the holiday stuff by MYSELF for three years the novelty wore off one day when I was standing in the dining room in a sea of boxes holding an ornament in my hand faced with the enormous task of putting everything away with no help. I vowed no more! I'm not doing this again. I don't have the energy. No more huge tree that leaves every single needle in my living room rug when my husband tries to stuff it out of the front door. No more packing boxes and boxes and boxes of ornaments away on my own. If no one wanted to help with either the decorating or the cleanup I was done. I was sad about it. I am still sad about it seven years later. I miss that holiday feeling of being a team that I got with my Mom and sister. This just wasn't happening with hubby and kid. I did all the work and they just weren't that into it. I decided that my house didn't need to look like Christmas Tree Shops barfed in it. But it still makes me sad. I still miss the team that me, my sister and mom used to make when I was a teenager. Despite the nasties that came along with an alcoholic father we managed to generate the holiday spirit between us. We had fun. We enjoyed ourselves. We were merry. I wish they lived closer.
My shrink and I discussed this ten years ago. She asked me excellent pertinent questions. What traditions are important to you? Why are they important? Can you make new traditions with hubby and kid? Now, years later, I am coming to the realization that while I live with hubby and kid we are not a cohesive unit. We suck at doing stuff together. What happens when you put three introverts together? We all go off and do our own thing. Ten years later do we have any new family traditions? I make a turkey dinner. We trade presents. That is about it. I'll watch the parades on my own in between peeling potatoes and putting the carrots on. Hubby is usually out in the garage playing with one of his cars and kid is playing video games. Generally it sucks. Hubby usually gets all sad that his parents aren't around and that nothing will be the same without them and he will never have a good Christmas ever again. I can't stand being the sole provider of the holiday experience for my family. It is tiring and lonely and generally not much fun.
They have even managed to suck the fun out of cooking. I love cooking. I love experimenting with new recipes and flavors and ingredients. However, remember that one holiday tradition I mentioned earlier? The Turkey Dinner. It MUST be composed of turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, carrots, stuffing, rolls and Ocean Spray jellied cranberry sauce with chocolate cake for dessert. There must be no diverging from this menu; no pies; no extra vegetables; no experiments.
I have mixed feelings about this. It makes the holiday way easy since it is a simple dinner to prepare. I don't have to go on a recipe hunt. I don't have to buy strange kitchen equipment. I don't have to find odd ingredients that will sit on a shelf for the rest of the year. We all love the dinner. It is yummy after all. I usually cook it about once a month for the entire fall and winter season. But having an intractable menu means no creativity. I can't experiment. I can't make extra side dishes or apple desserts or pie. This bums me out. I actually loved it when his mom or friends joined us for a holiday meal because I could use the guests as an excuse to make cool extra food.
So what did our holidays morph into before I got sick? I put up a white metal Christmas tree in our living room that is supposed to be a lawn ornament. It comes in three pieces so I can set it up in under 10 minutes. I hang some sky blue glass balls on it, fix a few broken bulbs and call it a day. Usually the kid digs around in the attic and brings down a few more decorations that have special meaning to him and he scatters them around the house. I make The Turkey Dinner. We spend a quiet day at home each doing our own thing. It is nice. It is pleasant. It is nothing like I grew up with.
I am dreading this year. I'm sick now. I can't cook. I can't decorate. I can't travel. I have no idea if any of my family will come here. I would love it if my sister came. She would take charge and help me in the kitchen. We could decorate together. I know she has given up on the Martha Stewart thing herself. She has simplified her holidays as well. I wonder if that would change if we got back together this year? I have visions of me, my sister and my mom sitting around my kitchen table peeling potatoes together. Something I miss dearly.
Every year I keep trying to look forward to the holidays. To get excited about them but I just can't capture that feeling I had when I was younger. It isn't something that you can generate on your own. It comes from people hanging out with each other. It comes from people helping each other and taking care of each other. It isn't the tree or the presents or the food. It is the interactions with family and friends that make or break the holidays. I have no idea what is in store this year now that I'm ill.
This post was originally supposed to be a treatise on how it is okay to choose simplicity for the holidays. That we shouldn't be slaves to Dickens, Hallmark or Martha. That it is okay to do our own thing. But the truth is I like oversized holidays. I want that. I miss the big family gatherings. I miss the women hanging out in the kitchen cooking together. I miss a pack of kids running around the house playing tag. I miss the adults sitting around the table telling family stories. No matter how many decorations I put up I just can't create that on my own and it makes me sad. I've settled for quiet. I've settled for simple. I've settled for The Turkey Dinner and white metal Christmas tree. And, if I am brutally honest, all the justifications in the world aren't making me happy about it.