My family hasn’t put up a Christmas tree in three years. Just two years before she died, my mother and I bought a towering synthetic Christmas tree almost too large to fit in our living room, along with ornaments and holiday-themed china. The holidays, which were all too brief, were spent at home, with extended naps alternating with bouts of frantic baking, with the sounds of Ella Fitzgerald and BBC comedies. Now three years after her passing, no one has the heart to put up any decorations, and we have lived as the only house in the neighborhood that doesn’t put up any fairy lights, giving lie to the Filipino stereotype of families putting up Christmas lights in September and taking them down in February.
My tiny, decimated family now still celebrates with gift exchanges, but the children my mother left behind spend the holidays awash in muted, gray feelings in what should be the most wonderful time of the year. We roll our eyes at carolers and avoid the hoi polloi at Simbang Gabi. I worry if we have turned into Mr. Scrooge, the Dickensian character who embodies a lack of holiday spirit.
It seems that we aren’t alone: any family who has experienced loss will be familiar with this struggle, and research has repeatedly shown this time of the year to be filled with increased stress, anxiety, loneliness, and even higher rates of self-harm, violence and suicide. The holidays make us hyperaware of the difference between what we’re told is the holiday experience, filled with jolly family parties, plentiful spreads, thoughtful gift-giving and togetherness, versus what is our actual reality. Even spiritual fulfillment seems out of reach, as instead of joy and hope, there’s pain, loneliness and the fear of never recapturing that lost holiday spirit.
This isn’t yet another rant at the overcommercialization of Christmas — I was not safe from the 12.12 Lazada and Shopee sales, and quite enjoyed them — but rather a lament at the way we project all our expectations of happiness onto one holiday season and get disappointed when they aren’t met. To the cynic, there’s also the reality that after the season, we’ll still end up where we were before — stuck in a world dealing with climate change, authoritarian governments, bigotry, violence, crippled criminal justice systems, deficient health care, and the other depressing things that Christmas can’t quite erase.
To the lost and lonely soul this December, it might offer some comfort that the first Christmas wasn’t a feast for the senses either, and also took place in a time of worry and hardship. Even the non-Christian must feel some sympathy for the figures of Joseph and Mary, a pair of Israeli new parents dealing with the challenges of childbirth all by themselves, fearing capture and in need of shelter. Throw in the slaughter of the innocents and the excesses of Roman rule and its tyrannical leaders, and you’ve got a picture not so different from what families around the world must be experiencing now, holidays or not.
It calls to mind the graphic picture painted in Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago” prior to the arrival of Jesus, where he called Rome a “a tasteless heap of gold and marble,” “a flea market of borrowed gods and conquered peoples… a mass of filth convoluted in a triple knot as in an intestinal obstruction… all crammed into the passages of the Coliseum, and all wretched.” The same words could have been in an op-ed about the world today, and would have been entirely accurate.
Paradoxically, the knowledge that not even the Holy Family may have had a picture-perfect family might be comforting, even consoling to those experiencing loss this holiday season. If the holidays have a way of making us yearn for a bit of Christmas magic and nostalgic for things we never had, we could remember that the first Christmas might have been bereft of all such comforts as well, and might have been filled with the same anxieties and dangers we have today. There shouldn’t be any pressure to be happy on even the most meaningful of holidays. It’s all right to be sad or anxious on Christmas, and we’re not alone.
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