The first death happened late spring of my 4th grade – my Grandma K dropped dead of a heart attack, a totally unexpected thing. The first Christmas after that was hard – my dad took the death of his mother very badly, and the first Christmas after any loss is tough. My Grandpa K died in November of grade 6 – a long slow terrible death from emphysema. In grade 7, on the last day of classes before the Christmas break, my uncle Johnny was terribly injured on the job, and he lingered until the quiet days between Christmas and New Year’s. The whole vacation was spent sitting in the ICU waiting room, and it was terrible. In grade 9, my Grandma W died just before New Year, in the hospice we’d spent a wrenching Christmas watching the cancer finally win. Grandpa W died when I was in grade 12, not long before Christmas, finally succumbing in the same hospice as his wife, also to cancer.
So what I’m trying to say is that Christmas? Wasn’t exactly a festive happy season for me, growing up. Christmas was the time where people died, and even on years blessedly free of funerals, the memories were always so close to the surface.
That combined badly with my mother’s rabid hatred of shopping and deep theological issues with the church she’d been raised in. One year, in grade 12, she canceled the holiday outright. (Gave us the option of not having Christmas in Calgary, or not having Christmas in Mexico. Mexico was lovely.)
So I grew up being, at best, ambivalent towards the holiday. It helped when my mother put her foot down and started to refuse attending more than one Christmas events in a single day, and cutting out trips to visit my grandparents on Boxing Day, three hour away. Before that, on the edges of my memories, were Christmases mainly marked by stress and frustration. After that, were less spoken family tensions, but at least we started to have pleasant Christmas mornings.
As a young adult, navigating Christmases with my ex’s family was a stressful nightmare that would start in November and involve a month of back and forth and crying and manipulation and guilt and stress and general horribleness. (I really, really don’t miss that.)
The Christmases of my childhood were full of unspoken family tension and tears. The Christmases of my school years were full of death and funerals and tears. The Christmases of my young adulthood were full of loud family tensions and tears.
I refuse to let this be the legacy my daughter grows up with.
We haven’t quite figured out how yet, and god knows you can’t avoid deaths, but we can at the very least deal with scheduling multiple family gatherings calmly, well beforehand and not allowing waffling after the final decision is made. We’re also insisting on not traveling for Christmas this year – baby’s first Christmas and all. (Next year, it will be baby’s first Christmas where she knows what’s going on, and the year after maybe the future hypothetical baby’s first Christmas, and I am willing to keep coming up with stuff for as long as I have to, if it means I can wake up on Christmas morning in my own bed. Or in Mexico – that can be quite nice too.) It helps that all the grandparents are being calm and rational about it, and everyone recognizes that, free of any close ties to the religious nature of the holiday, there’s no difference celebrating family together on Boxing Day instead. Or on Dec 28th, for that matter. When Jess is old enough to care about Santa, that might change things a little, but then, it’s better if you’re at home so Santa can find you, right? But seriously, I am willing to travel the couple of hours south to spend Christmas with my inlaws – I have in the past – but with a little baby it’s SO much easier to stay home, and everyone seems to get that. Also, neither one of our sisters will be home for the holidays, so it’s a very small number of people’s feelings that need to be taken in to account. So we’ve eliminated the fighting over Christmas drama. Our sisters not being home eliminates the sibling drama that made last year’s Christmas rather shitty. We have a long standing family dinner at my aunt’s house on Christmas Day, but that’s it for driving around. (And she lives like, 7 minutes away from us.) What else. Presents: I actually like buying and receiving presents. On mat leave, I don’t have to fight Saturday crows at the mall, instead free to go at 10 am on a Tuesday and cut down that stress. I have a pretty good idea of what everyone’s getting already, and figuring out the rest doesn’t stress me out. We’ll actually decorate the house this year – I know Jess will love looking at the shiny lights and other pretty things, and so far, she’s not mobile enough to be a big threat to a tree. (Well, this week, anyway…)
My 2012 Christmas resolution is to start a new tradition of calm, pleasant holidays, with the minimum possible level of crying and drama and stress. Fingers crossed!