The story of my childhood holidays is the story of my dad’s bad luck. My dad had the misfortune of being born on Christmas Eve so the holidays were always tough for him. Having a birthday on Christmas meant he never had birthday parties like other kids and he always felt like he got short-changed with presents. As a child, his family never had much money and so I’m sure, in some ways, this was true. Somehow this created a deep wound that spread through the generations.
What it meant for me growing up in a sometimes-but-especially-at-the-holidays violent home, was that the Christmas was not the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, but rather, the Most Treacherous. The stakes are so high at the holidays. All my mother wanted was for us to have a great time. She spent money and time to make everything perfect and it was my job as a kid to look good, smile pretty, and have fun – “or else!”
The key to a successful holiday, I quickly learned, was to completely detach from your feelings and focus on performing as expected to make the adults happy. Sadly, I was a terrible failure and was punished and/or sent to my room for not being cute enough with some frequency.
Luckily, it didn’t take long for me to come up with a distraction from my inconvenient feelings: FOOD! And the holidays were full of delicious food. I would stand near a table eating sausage balls or cannolis until I could no longer stand. The cannolis loved me. They didn’t make sudden movements and they didn’t judge me. In fact, the cannolis seemed to invite me to ignore the negative sensations in my body and focus on pleasure – and that’s what Christmas was about, right?
Food kept me from getting in trouble with my parents and it kept me from the terrible sense that something was wrong. I wanted to enjoy the holidays like I was supposed to but that seemed to mean an intricate dance of walking on eggshells that I wasn’t very good at. Eating was my secret weapon -- my way on to the dance floor.
The first Christmas I didn’t have a knot in my stomach from trying to please everyone and disconnect from myself, I was confused. It didn’t feel very festive, it kinda felt boring. Somehow I’d come to associate the stress and anxiety with Holiday cheer.
I’ve since recreated Christmas wonder by creating new traditions and rituals, playing new music, and even changing the day I celebrate! I now celebrate Yule on 12/21 instead of Christmas and I have a new found, spiritual attachment to New Year’s.
I do hang out with my family on Christmas day, but the stakes are lower. I’ve let go of the pressure to perform or to disconnect from my emotions. I’ve got strategies for leaving the room or for avoiding conversations. And mostly, I show up on Christmas day with a shopping bag full of compassion. We’ve all got our “stuff”, and high drama events like the holidays bring it all to the surface. What I know now is that I’m an adult. I get to feel my feelings. I am empowered to create a culture of respect and the best gift I can give my family is to love them even when it’s hard – especially when it’s hard.