It’s an odd space to be in, after someone dies in the midst of a holiday season. We have, over the years, planned our rituals and meals around my mother-in-law. With her passing, it’s a time of sadness, but it also takes away expectations. I’ve never much cared for the holidays, because I’m just that kind of sourpuss who revels quietly in ordinary living, but loathes over-the-top squeals of delight, social interaction with people I wouldn’t share a lifeboat with, and lavish meals that last an entire day. Although if that meal were entirely made up of mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie, I might stay for seconds.
Rampant expectations send many of us spiraling into a murky depression that is only relieved after the accoutrements are shoved in the attic, the crappy gifts are on their way to a thrift store, and we can enter an establishment without being regaled by some pop star puking out Little Drummer Boy. This is my snarling self on full parade.
My thoughtful, caring self has found a quieter, less rancorous way to get through the holidays without the depression sinkhole. I say “no” a lot. I focus on those things that bring sensory joy – music I like (today it’s pop 70s music), favorite foods, sparkly lights, my child’s happy face when she finds out that we bought those expensive tickets to some nerdy classical music event. But this is not much of a change from our day-to-day. I imagine that is the actual point I’m trying to make. I don’t want the holidays to be a high point in the year. I’m greedy that way – I want happy moments throughout the year. Without all the social expectations.
So we patchwork our way through the holiday. An atheist, a Lutheran, and an undecided. My husband and I brought forth the traditions of our youth – a tree, stockings, and special meal. We added things we liked – like never going anywhere on Christmas day, making cinnamon rolls, staying in our pajamas, playing board games. Quiet joy and love and simple pleasures.
It’s taken decades for me to no longer have that twinge, that hungry expectation of a mended and loving extended family. Spending many years of holidays alone taught me a lot. That we can make whatever of it that we feel like. Sometimes I made overtime and double pay. Sometimes I’d invite a smattering of displaced friends who had nowhere to go. Sometimes I’d not leave the couch all day, after checking out a stack of videos from the library.
The expectation was that I’d survive, that the depression would pass, that someday I’d get to this point, where it wasn’t that big of a deal, where it didn’t become a way to highlight absence, disappointment, or the holes in my life. Instead, it has become a time of reflection, gentleness, gratitude, and compassion.