Thursday, December 22, 2011

Holidays and Happiness

How do you feel about Christmas?

For at least a couple of decades December was my favorite time of year. I think that was true even when my family was disintegrating and I was making the transition into the grownup world. Whether I was with family or with friends, it was a special time of year. Nostalgia can linger for a long time.

Some time in my 30s, though, I think I crossed a line. Just as a prediction of snow came to mean slick roads and scary commutes, not sledding and staying home, the approach of Christmas has come to bring with it more stress than jollity. As a way of taking responsibility for my own emotions, I've tried to "manage" the disappointment away through the choices I make, but not with much success. Reading back through my holiday posts on this blog I think negative or ambiguous feelings about holidays have come to outweigh the positive ones; now I have little expectation that it will be the hap, happiest season of all.

I am, at best, cautiously optimistic.

Does it have to be that way? Let's not insist on happiness, like it's some kind of right, but how about choosing joy? Hmm...

Although the correlation is inexact, age seems to be the most significant factor. Little ones are supposed to love Christmas and by and large they do. But it's usually the grownups who call the shots for what Christmas will be "like" any given year. How do we pull together in a way that feels both loving and authentic?

It's been a tough year for the family I'm joining. Some major illness, disappointment, and loss. As I find my place in a family that includes a teenaged son and daughter and three teenaged nieces, I wonder how they feel about the holiday. It's a little hard to ask: I know you don't believe in Santa or anything, but Christmas, is it still magic for you? Is there anything I can do to help keep this time special for you? (Or to experience some magic for myself, seeing it through your eyes?)

Chris and I are also talking, in broad-brush terms at least, about starting some traditions of our own. 

While the Christian feast of the incarnation requires no trees, sweets, or wrapping paper, there are some cultural values connected to Christmas that I find particularly helpful: gratitude and giving.

A big part of Christmas, as I was growing up, was making those shopping lists, going to the drugstore for fancy soaps for the great aunts, wrapping up jars of homemade jam for the teachers, picking out a stuffed animal for my sister and some new socks for Dad, brainstorming with him about what Mom would like. In more recent years the great aunts are gone. I guess I could have still sent my online professors jars of jam (what would they say? We've never met!). Meg might still like the stuffed animals; I did not go that route but did bring back something a little playful for her from my spring trip to Siberia. And I did get Dad socks, last year, and Mom can always use something to keep her warm, too.

In recent years I've made a a few more grown-up additions to the giving list. I've often picked out presents for my several dozen supporters. I've enjoyed making year-end financial gifts to people I can't support year-round. My inbox is full of year-end appeals. Looks like I have maybe $200 tops that I could distribute that way this year, but maybe Chris and I can make those decisions together? I enjoyed picking out poinsettias and delivering them to a few of his patients last weekend. It would be good to do more of that.

Pat, my news sleuth in New York, recently brought to our readers' attention the connection between happiness and giving. Read about it here (scroll to the last item).


Megan Noel said...

Do you remember the year the dog ATE the fancy soaps?

I am having the same issues. It kind of does not make sense that the magic of childhood can be replaced by this feeling like something is missing. i've been really depressed (a job would help) but it is helped to try to do some things for others.. making a stuffed totoro for my little norwegian friends ingrid and finn, picking out a book for my friend rylie whose dad is seriously ill in the hospital and who could lose a magical world to get lost in for a little while, and knitting a sweater for taylor's american girl doll. there were 5 small children tearing around Greg's house - so crowded! (ok one is too small to tear around).

oboegal said...

This is a great post and I can relate. I used to have both sets of grandparents visit every Christmas. They made cookies and took me to the store to pick out something. They cleaned my mother's house and cooked. Everyone got along and had fun together. I miss that atmosphere and would love to have a grandma make cookies at my house. Sigh... But I hope to BE that kind of grandma someday, and meanwhile I will try to live out Christmas in the inspiring, giving way you have described, Marti. Thank you.

Marti said...

Chris's mom is a great example of a grandmother... and even though she couldn't eat the cookies this year (gall bladder issues, ugh!) she seemed to enjoy providing them for others.

Just wrapped up (no put intended) the last of my Christmas celebrations - a holiday weekend with my parents. It was great. The only thing I'm struggling with is the shame I feel that most of the people I exchange gifts with, notably the parents (three sets now) way "out-gave" me this year. I tend to think as a 40-something-year-old adult, I should be giving them as much as they give me. Even though I stretched myself, I received much more back this year. Not sure what to make of it. Maybe I'll blog about that. Though they all read the blog, so that could be awkward.