A Different Kind of Christmas

Nothing feels “right”.  It is like a twilight zone for me as I walk around stores and public places, experiencing all the Christmas lights, decorations, festive shoppers and music, and as I try to help make our home look and feel like it normally would at this time of year.  Sometimes I feel as though I’m walking around in a cloud of sorts, seeing and hearing things, knowing that the Christmas season is here, going through the motions but not really present in any of it because it’s happening outside of me.  Other times it hits me in the most unexpected moment and I am thrown right into the reality of Christmas without my husband, life without my husband.

The feeling of Christmas spirit in our house only came about little by little as we prepared ahead of time because Pat worked in retail and it was the busiest and most stressful time of year.  He wasn’t really able to feel festive himself until his last shift was over – usually on Christmas Eve – when he would come home happy, relieved, excited and ready for the celebrations to begin.  That was a marking point for us that it was finally time to let loose because Christmas was here. That annual “event” is as distinct in my mind as the reality of it never happening again.

It isn’t that I can’t buy gifts myself – I usually did most of the time – or continue to bake or cook or plan special things as we always did.  It is the hole; it’s the fact that he’s not here to share the fun with with me when I come home with a special gift for one of the kids, to help stuff stockings, to make us laugh with his unique humour.  It’s the fact that as I’m shopping and starting to enjoy myself, feeling festive, I see things that I would have bought for him, ideas that pop out and serve as sharp reminders that I no longer have a husband to shop for, leaving sadness where the spark of joy was.  It’s the absence of the fun in conversations leading up to Christmas when he would be trying to figure out what to buy for me, wanting to make sure it was something special and that it cost enough, because I was always practical and he wanted to spend more – he never wanted me to spend on him and never asked for anything, but always wanted to spend on me.

It’s the reminder that on the day of his accident we were just finishing taking down the Christmas decorations and putting things away before he left for work. And just as all of Christmas was being packed away, so our life as we knew it was going to come to a close;  a door would be shut that we would never be able to open again.  For me, everything about Christmas in my mind relates to “before”, and as each year goes by I am further and further away from “before”, from the door that shut.  I can still pull out the Christmas boxes and hang up the usual decorations collected over many years in our family.  I can make the house look bright and cheery and make it smell like gingerbread.  But the door is still shut.  Thus, the twilight zone.

Yes, there are happy moments.  Yes, we still laugh and yes, we will still play games, watch movies and make memories – and we will share memories from “before” and there will be tears, sorrow, and pain.  It will be a different kind of Christmas, but we’ll make it through.

Here is a video performance of a song I wanted to share, for us and for all who will be missing a loved one at Christmas this year.


Click here to view video

















Stuart Is In Party Mode?

 Stuart is a minion.  A one-eyed cute as a button little minion in blue overalls.  He belongs to my cousin’s daughter, thus he is my cousin’s grand minion, and I supposed that makes him my first-cousin-minion-twice-removed.  He appears in photos on tropical vacations, and in everyday happenings around the house, restaurants, bars etc. and today he was all dressed up for Christmas sitting under the tree at my cousin’s house.  He is apparently in party mode, and I am reading the updates on Facebook about how he is behaving.  We are currently discussing what he would look like in lederhosen, singing in German…

Why on earth am I telling you this?  Because it makes me smile.  It’s a simple silly thing and it makes me smile and wish I had thought of it myself.  My cousin’s daughter has always been the life of the party.  She’s the person you just want to hug. She makes the room brighter just by being in it.  So it’s understandable that her little minion would take after her in that respect.

But more seriously, it reminded me of the little things that stand out in a day sometimes in the midst of turmoil and confusion, the unexpected things that make a difference.

I didn’t know when I left home this morning with my heavy heart, fighting off a germ of some kind, exhausted from lack of sleep in hopes of merely surviving the first of many “new normal” Christmases with my husband now in long term care, that I would encounter unexpected things that might have been little on someone’s scale of a day, but for me were big things.

I was counselled and given some thought provoking advice in a conversation which progressed beyond anything I had intended, and it made me look at some things I have been trying to block out.  This sweet lady has a way of bringing out things that have been building up in me and calling them as she sees them, with a lot of love in her heart.  She asked me straight out what it is that I’m expecting God to do that will make things OK before I stop being angry.  And I had no answer, because I’ve been asking myself the same question and I don’t know. 

Then I stopped in at my favourite store and was surprised with a special Christmas package of goodies just for me, with a beautiful note inside.  Apparently when I go in to enjoy their company and some peaceful “me time” browsing for inspiration and supplies for my next project, I make them smile.  Their kindness made me cry and I went to my van thinking about how my day started and how it was changing.

When I stopped in at my mom’s tonight, she told me to check in the garage because “Santa” had dropped off a couple of items for my workshop.  I opened the garage to find a router and a scroll saw gifted to me from a long time family friend who wanted to help me out by sharing his extra tools.

I thought about how I felt when today started, and how I felt after so much kindness had come my way from different places in a matter of a few hours, and I said a prayer of thanks.  Then I thought about what it was that I was expecting God to do that would make things OK before I stopped being angry.  And I realized that maybe it isn’t something HE needs to do. 


So if Stuart is in party mode, drinking wine and dancing around the Christmas tree, then maybe that’s where I should be too, and whatever our “new normal” Christmas is going to be this year, I want to have just as much fun as he does.

George Bailey gets his own angel?

It’s a wonderful movie with a wonderful message and a wonderful ending.  It has well known characters dear to our hearts and gives us the reminder that no matter how bad things get, we’re all still important to the world around us.  And it used to be our family classic movie selection during the holiday season, generally on Christmas Eve.  We own it.   But a few years back we decided to put aside “It’s a Wonderful Life” for a movie more in line with our family celebrations, mishaps, and realities, because none of us have ever had a visit from an angel. 

Enter the Griswold family Christmas. 

That’s what we call it in our house – our Christmas, not the movie – in fact we use that line for many things, like the Griswold family picture, or the Griswolds go to Edmonton etc.  It’s fitting, especially once something has gone wrong.  It wasn’t enough that the original Vacation movie brought to the big screen the many real life issues faced on a family trip and turned what were simple disagreements, annoyances, and unexpected circumstances into a blockbuster hit that so many families could relate to in one way or another.

There just had to be a Christmas Vacation version, packed with the saga of

hanging the lights, a Christmas bonus on the line after overspending, and the big family get together including certain dreaded relatives, some invited, some just showing up – the embarrassing ones, that no one really wants to introduce to a newcomer.  Of course, the exaggerations are what make it funny, but there’s a little bit of that Christmas disaster that helps many of us feel like it’s OK if things don’t turn out quite the way we planned. The Griswolds are a family we can relate to and they help us laugh at ourselves.  And seriously, don’t we all feel a little bit sad for Clark when the lights don’t work?

I learned long ago that Norman Rockwell’s Christmas existed only in paintings, sentimental movies, the Cleaver family, and perhaps the homes of very rich people with servants who made sure that every light bulb evenly spaced on a garland packed winding staircase shone, blinked or flashed according to plan, that the turkey was roasted to perfection and served precisely at the moment when everyone was dressed and seated to watch Father-Knows-Best carve it into thin succulent pieces you could slice with a fork.  But I wouldn’t know for sure about the rich part.

Our Christmas dinner growing up consisted of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, brussel sprouts, cranberry sauce – JELLIED ONLY – and gravy.  It never varied and we liked it that way.  But that was as Rockwell as it got.  Our dinner was “timed” based on the games we were playing all day and once the competition closest to a reasonable supper time came to an end – and not a minute before – my mom carved the turkey (gasp!) on the counter before it was served on the platter carefully with distinct sections for white and dark meat because each of us had a definite preference.  Dad never carved anything unless he was guilted into it, and then it became a form of entertainment, as did anything involving my dad.
Once I was married and we spent a few Christmas Days like the walking dead after being up until 4 am the night before (midnight Mass) we moved our Christmas dinner to Boxing Day because we all preferred to snack and relax and no one really appreciated a big supper – I didn’t feel like cooking it and the rest of my family didn’t feel like eating it.  The kids didn’t like the pressure of having to forego or at least limit their enjoyment of treats only prepared at holiday time because supper was coming. I wonder if the Cleavers ever considered that?  My dad wasn’t pleased at first with such a monumental change, but he eventually either mellowed or simply gave up the fight because he got used to it.  
We always liked to cook the biggest bird we could find because the leftovers were awesome.  I used to be able to eat turkey for a week.  Then one day I realized I was done, I was tired of it.  I liked the first meal and had no desire for a sandwich the next day. WHAT?  how did that happen?  I didn’t hate it, I just didn’t love it anymore (sorry Rockwell). So the birds got smaller and we froze leftovers and pulled them out sometime before Easter when the next turkey came along.

Enter the turkey allergy.  Now we have a family member allergic to turkey (probably always was and we just didn’t know because lots of people end up with stomach aches after a big holiday dinner, right?) so our holiday dinners have evolved into a mix of things that are a lot less work (YAY!)

and require little cleanup because that’s the way I roll.  The last thing I want to do after Christmas dinner is dishes.

I’ve never had a turkey dinner go as badly as Clark’s did,although one year at Easter when I was still a teenager, we played games with dad so late that mom finally decided to eat alone at about 9pm because the turkey was drying out — I won’t expand on the resulting upset that we later apologized to her for.  We might have been just a little too focussed on our competition……

There are the George Bailey’s of this world who are just really good guys and have something crappy happen to them so they need to be reminded that they are really good guys and everyone loves them.  And there are the Clark Griswolds of this world who aren’t really any different.  I’ll bet you weren’t expecting that, were you?  Let’s face it, all Clark wanted was to give his family the best darn Christmas he could give them, with all the lights and gifts and dinner and the tree and the Christmas bonus.  And when it all seemed to bomb he went postal: “Alleluia!  Holy shit!  Where’s the Tylenol?”  There was no angel showing up to give him therapy, but his family came through and showed him they loved him.

Of course I can’t end this without mentioning Charlie Brown.  His Christmas special has been part of my life since I was a small child and will always be my favourite.  It’s such a perfect half hour example of what it takes other movies hours to say:  if you have friends and family around who care about you (the dog is a bonus), you can have difficulties and sadness along the way and still have your Christmas turn out just fine.

So whatever your Christmas looks like or tastes like, own it and enjoy it and don’t compare it to anyone else’s because it doesn’t matter.  Expectations are something we put on ourselves or allow others to put on us.  Learn to say “no” to the media hype, relatives who push too hard, commercial overload, or whatever it is that gets your tinsel in a tangle.  It’s your Christmas too. By the time it’s over will you be exhausted and have regrets, or will you be well rested and happy with how you spent it?  I’ll be relaxing with my feet up watching the fake fire on TV and not giving a hoot about whether the pictures are art book worthy.  Merry Christmas Norman Rockwell, George Bailey, Clark Griswold and Charlie Brown.  You’ve all taught me something!


It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

OK, so maybe for a lot of people it is, and for me it probably was.  But when your life gets turned upside down and you spend most of your time and energy from then on just trying to tread water so you don’t drown, the Christmas season is not necessarily a spirit lifter.  It becomes one more reminder of how your life sucks so much that even though Bing thinks it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, you can’t feel merry and bright, your heart is anything but light, all is not calm and the halls are definitely not what you feel like “decking”.

Eventually, I will post our story, but for now suffice it to say that I have very good reason to not be enjoying the music, decorations, and general giddiness that surrounds me in the midst of a broken heart.  Christmas will come and go and in most ways will be just another day for me.  At this point I’m not necessarily waiting for Jesus to be “born”; I’d be satisfied if He would just fix this mess and I don’t care which day of the year He chooses.

I have happy Christmas memories from childhood and from many years of marriage and children of my own.  Sadly now, those happy memories just make this time of year even harder.  Last year, our family Christmas was celebrated in a hospital among people who suffered as much as we did, some even more.  And it was celebrated without my dad, who passed away shortly before.  It is a Christmas I would rather forget, and often do, because I find myself referring to “last year” and meaning 2012.  But that’s part of that other story, the one where my brain ends up injured too.

However, this post isn’t just about me; it’s about recognizing that, for many people, this time of year brings sadness and unhappy memories.  In fact, I’ve heard a few people actually tell me that they wish the whole season would just go by without any kind of fanfare or that they could just skip it altogether.  I never understood that until this point in my own life.

Charlie Brown was depressed because he just couldn’t feel happy about Christmas.  He didn’t “get it”.  His friends watched him and wondered what his problem was, thinking it was just another one of his personality issues because he thought too much.  Linus tried to help him out by explaining the “real meaning” of Christmas, but I can tell you that for a depressed melancholic character, that whole “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field…” thing doesn’t cut it, even if it’s told by a cute little guy carrying a blanket.

Chuck picked out the loneliest looking little tree because he had hope for it and it represented a simpler celebration than all the commercial ideas were promoting. He got a few minutes of joy from hanging a lovely ball on a branch and for a moment it looked like Christmas would be OK.  And then BAM! it dropped to the ground, along with his heart and once again he felt the pain we melancholics often feel of knowing all along that hoping for something doesn’t make it so, and many times over, carrots are dangled and pulled away just as quickly.  Hopes are crushed.

Yes, it is supposed to be about Jesus being born into the world.  We tell this to our kids and hope it will keep them from getting too attached to the presents.  We put up the nativity scene in the middle of all the other decorations as a reminder and hope this will keep the focus on what Christmas actually means.  But how many of us really know the difference?  I thought I did.  I thought I knew a lot of things that I don’t know.

I know it isn’t about spending everything you have on a bunch of stuff you don’t need so you can pat yourself on the back because you gave the best gifts and then enjoy the bills for months to come.  My kids tease me because we realized that my Christmas budget is pretty much the same now as it was when they were little over twenty years ago.  I don’t do inflation.  And I don’t do $20 stocking stuffers either.  

I know it isn’t about the food and stuffing a year’s worth of special treats and goodies into one celebration.  Been there, done that, got sick.  And fat.  Now once the baking starts it’s fair game unless it has already made it to the freezer.  Why not enjoy the treats throughout the season instead of doing all that work and hoarding them for “Christmas” which in our house meant two days.  By the way, there are certain treats that are completely tasty right out of the freezer.

I know it isn’t about getting gifts because as much fun as it is, I can hardly ever remember what I got and I know my kids have the same problem, even though I spent many hours over the years planning and preparing and wrapping and surprising.  

I know it isn’t about traditions because I’ve finally realized that I don’t have to drink egg nog just because we are decorating the tree. I don’t even like eggnog.  Yet since I was a child it was part of the tree decorating in our home, which I passed onto my kids, and now I find out one of them doesn’t like it either.  So beer it is, or maybe wine, but I can never remember which one you’re supposed to drink first?  And I can live without shortbread too.  I don’t love it anymore either and my kids never really liked it so I ended up eating it all myself, which is probably why I’m sick of it.  I’m going to eat what I like and drink what I like and if it changes every year, that’s fine with me.

That doesn’t leave me with much.  I’m not going to talk about how it’s all about being nice to others and getting together with friends and family because we all know that’s true, but we can do that other times too, and we do.  That part of “Christmas” happens for me when I’m desperate for help, can’t leave the hospital, and know that my friend is on the other end of a text and will bring me food.  And hug me while I cry.  And for a few minutes my world isn’t black.

I’m not knocking Christmas, or telling anyone else what it should be for them.  And I’m not going to tell the people who don’t like it that if they just knew what it really meant they would be happier.  I’m just saying that some people don’t know, some people don’t care, and some people are in so much pain that they’d rather curl up in a big chair and wake up when it’s over.  And at a time of year when we are trying to spread good cheer, we need to remember that.  Some people just need understanding more than jingle bells.

In the end, all of Charlie Brown’s friends fixed up his tree and gathered around him to sing and it looked like a happy ending.  For lots of people it will be.  But we all know that wasn’t the end of his story …