Yesterday, another blogger asked if Christmas is the “season of goodwill to all, a time for merriment, joy, peace and . . . horror?” He wrote about the British tradition of incorporating “spine-tingling terror” into holiday stories. But when I first glanced at the title of his article, Scary Christmas, I thought he was going to address a very different topic.
To me, the concept of a “scary Christmas” brings up images of the contrast between the type of holiday celebrations we read and sing about — and those we sometimes actually experience. Yesterday afternoon, I performed with the Lodi Community Band in our annual Christmas concert, a gift we present to the community each year. It didn’t matter that only the sing-along at the end of the performance featured lyrical renditions of the familiar holiday tunes, because we all know the words. Many audience members sang along softly as we performed their favorite carols. As I played my flute, the words to the tunes swirled through my head, too. Consider some of the words to Leroy Anderson’s always crowd-pleasing “Sleigh Ride,” for instance:
There’s a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy
When they pass around the coffee and the pumpkin pie
It’ll nearly be like a picture print by Currier and Ives
These wonderful things are the things
We remember all through our lives.
I always find myself wondering how many folks actually feel more like Joni Mitchell.
It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
Most of us grew up expecting perfect holidays. Between the songs, stories, movies, television specials, and, especially, advertisements, we were brainwashed to believe that every moment of every Christmas season should be a magical, wondrous experience. Frequently, Christmas arrived and did not live up to the hype, leaving us to wonder what we did wrong or why our family and friends didn’t exactly match our expectations.
The reality is that many people spend holidays with relatives that they really don’t like very much, eating food that is not to their liking. They repeatedly check their watch and conspire with their spouse to discern the appropriate moment to leave, hopeful to have stayed long enough to appease the host but eager to escape a stressful environment. They dread the holiday season because they know that it brings obligations and responsibilities, including long trips to the homes of relatives with whom they would rather not have to interact. Phrases like “I guess we’d better go in order to ‘keep the peace'” and “Just do it for me, honey” are heard more this time of year than any other.
The ugly truth that most people don’t want to face — and. for the most part, prefer not to read or write about — is that the holidays don’t bring exclusively Normal Rockwell-esque moments.
I find stories about families struggling during this “most wonderful time of the year” the most intriguing, with or, preferably, without the requisite happy ending comprised of the protagonist realizing that his or her life is, after all, pretty much perfect. I find a holiday reality check cathartic and comforting. I would much rather watch a movie or read a book about a squabbling, dysfunctional family than the kind depicted on Hallmark Christmas cards.
One of the benefits of aging is the burgeoning confidence, based upon an ever-growing collection of life experiences, that Christmas will come again next year, bringing with it the same consternation and expectations. We will survive it yet again. And as the years pass, the best memories will be comprised of unexpected, surprising little moments, not the major planned events. When our loved ones are gone and we find ourselves celebrating Christmas without them, it will be the tender, funny, out-of-the-blue occurrences that we will think back on with great fondness and longing. Those are the remembrances that will sustain us.
As I get older, the inescapable truth that, on some level, Christmas is just another day becomes less frightening and I am increasingly able to embrace that actuality. Ironically, that knowledge empowers me to savor the traditional songs, carols, and stories with abandon. Each successive year, I feel less compelled to design and execute a holiday experience for myself or my family that lives up to the ones depicted therein. I am more comfortable setting limits, refusing to compromise my emotional boundaries, and, ultimately, determined to experience the “most wonderful time of the year” on my own terms.