A special kind of panic descends upon me during the holiday season; some years it seems to come down harder than others. For a few years after I became a mom, I almost thought I was cured of the panic, as the thrill of the special traditions we were making as a new family superseded the worry that everything got done perfectly. This year, though, the stress seems to have come back. (It could just be that I can handle a certain amount of worry, and now that breast cancer took up some of the open spots in the worry section, I don't have room for Holiday Worries.)
Christmas was my Mom's favorite holiday. I have memories of her taking a job at Toys R Us, just for the toy discount, of the year she special ordered all of the Strawberry Shortcake pets because we had the dolls before they came with pets, of adorable stuffed animals under the tree for each girl, of stockings brimming with fun, lovingly placed on our beds by Santa, and her little notebook filled with notes on all the special things we girls wanted. Somehow, she also managed to have special things for my Dad, as well as for the other many members of our extended family. It was beautiful, magical, and filled with love.
Christmas came crashing down one year, though, when we came home from Mass on December 22nd, to find my mom dead on the floor. (We didn't know that at the time, but the sight of my little sisters crying and my Dad trying to find a pulse was enough for me...I don't remember who called for the ambulance but I waited and prayed for it outside.) I was 12, and keenly aware that the magic was gone. I recall my Dad calling me to his room as he waded through all of the presents, trying to match gifts with girls. I remember the pain I felt as I thought of the slippers hidden in my own closet, bought for a mom who could no longer wear them. As my broken family opened presents on Christmas, after two days of visitation at the funeral home and the day before we buried my mom, the pain began to morph into the panic I can still feel. I felt obligated to take on this holiday and to keep it special for my family.
It was a doomed operation from the start, though. Holidays are a time when you so keenly feel a loss, and if you lost the person who MADE that holiday for you, a mother, and 3 days before Christmas, you just can't fix that. It may have been the same had I not fretted so long and so hard over what to get for my Dad, or how to make the holiday special for my sisters, because it just couldn't be. I wasn't smart enough to figure that out, though, and for me the holiday season just became this time of smiles I plastered on my face, covering the anxiety I couldn't control. "HOW can I make them not feel the loss of what we had?"
I found more joy in Christmas once I had children...but at the same time, I'm completely flummoxed by the happiness my mom seemed to get from this holiday. HOW IN THE WORLD DID SHE DO IT? I'm about 1/5 of the Christmas mom that she was, and it's still making me crazy. Could it be that I am worn out from all of the work I put in from years 12-26? Or is it that the grief of those years somehow injured my brain, and made me incapable of even a fraction of the stress the holidays brings on?
I think I had a revelation last night, though...I can't do it all, and I can't MAKE the holiday for anyone. More importantly, I don't NEED to Make Christmas for anyone for myself. My dad and sisters, and each member Bill's family all are part of their own special units who provide the most intimate celebrations. My own little unit doesn't even have a form they are filling out, "How this Christmas compares to all the other Christmases ever had, by anyone, and why ours is suckier." They are going to love Christmas because it is magical, all the time with the family and the exchange of gifts/love. And they are also going to feel let down when the presents are all opened, but that doesn't mean it was a failure, it just means that they are kids. Lastly, I can't compare the joys I take from the season to the joys my mom took, and it's not wrong if I don't love the shopping, the buying, etc.
What I can do is add some misery to the holiday, if I want to keep stressing about it - I can make Bill miserable by nagging him to participate with the writing of holiday cards, holiday decoration, and all of the things I have felt for so long were essential to a good holiday. I can make myself miserable by carrying around my own checklist: "How this Christmas compares to all the other Christmases ever had, by anyone, and why ours is suckier." OR, I can dial it down a notch.
I can trust that everyone will indubitably feel the magic, even if I don't make 10 different kinds of cookies, get all the perfect gifts, do every service project I run across in this holiday season, etc. If I can't take the stress, I can remove some of it. I don't need to do everything...being here and happy is enough. Dancing around to some Christmas carols, taking time to relax, enjoying the moment...that's going to have to take the place of some of the extra presents and preparations this year. I hope no one misses what could have been, but I am pretty certain they won't.
I sure wish I had figured this out 20 years ago...