Like most children, perhaps especially my generation, Christmas was an amazing time of year. From the first snow sometime in November or so until school let out around the 20th of December, every day ramped up the anticipation and made the waiting ever more unbearable. I remember making wish lists from the Sears catalog (complete with page number and item sku!) on carefully lined legal pads and being told that I couldn’t even buy myself a comic book at the Danner’s Five-and-Dime because I might get some for Christmas (Grandma Noah usually gave me a bundle of random comics, but they were mostly of the “Casper The Friendly Ghost” and “Richie Rich” variety, and I wanted my superheroes!).
It was a magical time. The best food of the year, the tattling on your siblings when you catch them snooping to see the presents early, the comparing what you’re expecting with the other kids at school.
Yes, it was magical and heady stuff. I recall making a huge wish list for art supplies for my 12th Christmas; I wanted every imaginable art medium and material, and I asked for dozens of art instruction books, too. One evening, while helping Dad in his basement workshop, I mentioned how I wanted those things so much more than toys and such, and Dad basically told me that I could count on it. I was overjoyed, but still nervous come Christmas morn and genuinely surprised and thrilled when the dream came true.
In 1981, when Dad was diagnosed with terminal Multiple Myeloma, we still celebrated Christmas that year, though it was obviously understated, with him so weak from the chemo and radiation and spending so much time in the hospital. It wasn’t until the next year that the joy of Christmas ended completely.
On December 20, 1982, Dad’s fight ended and he went home. At his funeral, as one would expect given the time of the year, there were countless poinsettias, and SO many of his friends in attendance. In all the years since, I’ve never seen a funeral procession as long and well attended as his (and I’ve worked across the street from a cemetery for the last 10 years!). And I wept non stop. Friends and family attempted to comfort me and help me cope, but I was having none of it. Years later I would apologize to so many people whom I simply blew off that day, wallowing and drowning in my tears. When it was all finished, Mom picked up a random white poinsettia and we went home.
Everyone deals with these things in their own way, of course. I dealt by shutting down. Christmas was joyless, and I would spend many, many years essentially blaming the holiday for my misery. I was sixteen years old and I would be in my forties before I would welcome the spirit of the season back into my life and my heart. I tried earlier, but always joy eluded me, as I knew it would (which of course is exactly why it did; I constantly found reasons to push it away).
The process of rediscovering Christmas is much like my process of (re)discovering myself. The largest part of my finding joy in December is the ability to find joy anywhere. At any time.
My first true glimpse at grown-up joy came via my meeting my Jacquelynn. Now I’m giving her neither credit nor blame for my emotional stability, but she has unquestionably been a leavening influence. I found my capacity not to love, for I always had that, but to BE LOVED without finding myself terminally unworthy or self-destructing in panic before even getting my feet wet. Even so, though I celebrated Christmas with her, it wasn’t until just these last few years that I have truly embraced it and taken true joy in the decoration and textures of the season. Each year with her has gotten me closer, has opened me up a little more. Watching her, from our very first Christmas as a couple in 1999, gently and patiently whittling away at my despite for the season. I’d grumble about how early the stores began promoting it and I’d complain about ostentation and ego in the grand home displays and light shows. But I’d drive her around to ooh and aah at them, glancing over and smiling at her when she couldn’t see me do so.
I can’t tell you exactly when I began to allow myself to truly enjoy Christmas again. Sometime around 2009 or 2010 I’d guess. I began acquiescing to Jacquelynn’s offer to send a small tree with me to work for display at my desk. I’d always enjoyed getting things for her, and I’m a pretty solid gift wrapper, but I found myself shopping for the perfect paper for the gift I’d chosen, and taking special pride in how they were placed under the tree. Yes, we put up a tree. A couple of years ago, we had five trees up, not counting the one at my desk.
No, Jacquelynn didn’t rescue me, at least not fully. We are each 100% responsible for our own emotional state, and it wasn’t until I realized this that I was able to be rescued from my own self-imposed misery. I had to first realize that I was, indeed, creating my own deeply melodramatic and entirely selfish horror story around the holiday, and that I was to blame. Then, when I finally allowed myself to be loved, then I could eventually allow myself to be rescued. The Intentional Grinch’s heart could grow ten times its size and he could come to love all the little Christmas Whos.
We are approaching a magical time of year again. The weather is uncomfortably crisp (though in six weeks or so we’ll consider the temps we’ve had these past few days a fond, distant memory) and the leaves are falling even as the stores begin to stock up for the early toy shoppers and proud house decorators. Yes, it IS magical, and I’m excited for it. I’m eager to walk through the malls hand-in-hand with my Jacquelynn, ogling the light shows and scoffing at the ridiculous prices. I’ll buy her a special ornament this year, too. Probably something Winnie The Pooh-themed and as precious to her as she is to me. And I’ll buy a white poinsettia.
Speaking of poinsettias, remember that one Mom picked up numbly after Dad’s service? Poinsettias are typically fairly short-lived, lasting a few weeks at most. But this one? It lived for a full year after that day. It spent weeks at a time unwatered and neglected, it sat in a corner of the living room with very little light, and it positively THRIVED for a full year until, on December 20, 1983, all at once, it withered and turned brown, all its petals falling off in one day. One year to the day after Dad passed from this life to the next.