Holiday grouch realization: maybe it’s me?

One-year-old Claremont resident Leia Valiente cries while having her picture taken with Santa Claus outside Claremont City Hall on Friday during last year’s Holiday Promenade and Tree Lighting ceremony Claremont. COURIER photo/Andrew Alonzo

by Mick Rhodes |

I sat down to write a (hopefully) humorous column about how I have come to loathe the manufactured pomp and grueling parental labor of the holiday season.

But as I worked my way through my crabby diatribe, I began to realize my adult perception of the sheer drudgery of Christmas may not be labor-related at all: maybe I’m just lonely.

For the record, between my wife and I we have nine children, so when I say I’m lonely, it’s not for lack of kids to keep things hopping. No, I mean I’m perhaps still in some sort of unconscious mourning for my own frozen in amber version of Christmas past, when my family was intact before time, illness, or bad luck permanently altered the landscape.

Digging into the feelings, as one does during the holidays, I suspect like most obstacles in my life there’s some trauma holding me back from becoming an adult. Yes, I just turned 59, but pining for the carefree Christmases of my long gone youth is pretty much the definition of childish.

Could this be why I despise the yearly churn of shopping, decorating, shopping, wrapping, shopping, cleaning, shopping, cooking, setting, serving, cleaning, undecorating, and cleaning?

What is undeniable is Christmas (with apologies to those who celebrate in other ways) occupies a mystical place in my memory. What was not to love? Family gathered, and presents piled up under the tree magically. After the early morning frenzy of gifts and food, the adults played pinochle, and us kids played with our new toys and ran around outside. It was heaven. All joy.

But like all theatrical productions, the show from the seats varied from what was happening backstage. And as I aged out of the sheer magic years I began to notice aunts and uncles bickering in the kitchen, the tired faces most of the adults, and the rolling eyes when one aunt got a little too far into the Chablis.

As the years went by some of us “kids” paired up with mates and drifted off to other family’s celebrations. Later we had kids of our own and naturally wanted our own traditions.

Then of course the older generation began dying, first the grandparents, then the parents. Now it’s just us “kids,” and we’re the old folks in charge of bringing the magic on Christmas morning. And after 30-some years of parenting it has become increasingly difficult to recreate the illusion.

Don’t misunderstand: I still want to make my kids happy on Christmas morning. It’s just that pretty much everything connected to that moment of joy is a drag for adults.

We spend our holidays buying, wrapping, buying more, wrapping more, figuring out what to cook, shopping, cooking, cleaning, and transporting said food and presents, setting up the big show, and then watching it all be torn to pieces. Then, round two: cleaning it all up, washing all the dishes, and cramming leftovers into the fridge. At about 10 p.m., we might finally sit down.

It’s a slog. It’s not fun. It’s not magic. It’s drudgery.

I want to be like most people, the ones whose eyes light up when Costco puts out its holiday decorations in August (only a slight exaggeration). Honestly though, the life-sized Nutcrackers and 100-foot strands of color-changing LED lights only cue my anxiety over the approaching season.

Writing all this down has given me insight into my resentment. For example, it’s probable there’s also a dash of laziness in there with the grief preventing me from enjoying the holidays. I’ve never relished decorating the house. I prefer minimalism. My wife Lisa says she’s a “maximalist,” and her warming influence on my previously stark style has been profound and well-received by everyone (including me) who’s been by since we were married in June. It remains to be seen whether her good taste and style will materialize in more holiday spirit around our pet- and kid-filled house.

If it does, perhaps that will help ease my worried holiday mind. I suspect it will.

My grief, though admittedly childish, is legit. My once modestly-sized family is scattered to the wind, either through death or from drifting apart. And though we all must endure this living and dying business, just because it’s part of the human condition doesn’t make it any less powerful. We’re all experiencing it to differing degrees every single day as kids are born and people die.

The holidays, and the indelibly linked memories each of us carry, can be a source of joy or serve as reminders of all we’ve lost and miss. Sometimes — and perhaps this is the ideal — they serve both functions.

If we can get past the sadness, we wrap our arms around the family we have now and be grateful. That’s where the bar is for me; I want to stop thinking about my own grief and remember that magic I felt seeing my mom light up when I opened the gift she worked hard to afford. I want to be like her and be there in that moment for my kids, instead of holding on to the sadness over who’s missing.

I’m going to do my best to live in gratitude — and not in the past — this holiday season.

I do reserve the right to grouse about the drudgery though. One can’t expect Christmas miracles.



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