Last week at my Christmas performance at Uncommon Ground, my theme was the experience of the holidays when you are single, have no children and have no family in the area. Many of my friends in the audience are in this situation and they appreciated my version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (I'll try to get that loaded onto my website soon). I mentioned that when I was a little girl Christmas was the best thing ever, but as a grown up I can't figure out how I fit into it anymore. I'm bewildered by how completely different the holiday season now feels. How could my most favoritest time of year turn into my most dreaded, loneliest time of year?
The obvious answer is about me feeling pressured and judged by a society that believes I "should" have a husband and family by now. We all know such feelings of lack and loneliness lead people to severe depression and attempted suicide at this time of year, but I'd rather look more deeply than that. Let's start with some of the memories I cherish: my sister and I trying to guess what was in the slowly growing pile of gifts under our tree (my parents didn't wait until Christmas eve, but put the presents out as they wrapped them), the colorful glow of tree lights against our tv screen, the smell of incense at midnight mass, the taste of Aunt Marty's tamales, the excitement of receiving my most desired items and playing with them all day (a stuffed cat, a tape recorder, a magic 8-ball). This is what I suspect made my childhood holidays so great:
1) Someone else was in control and all I had to do was be there, without doing any work or planning.
2) The presents!
When I was too young to help cook, shop or clean, my whole Christmas experience focused on deciding what I wanted for Christmas and then waiting for it. I had a few obligations such as singing in the school Christmas pageant and staying awake through Christmas mass (and trying to choke down one of Aunt Marty's tamales), but for the most part my sister and I had only one thing on our minds for the whole of December: presents. It was the delicious process of deciding what toys from the limitless universe of toys I wanted the most and then waiting for them to appear, which they always did. And that was it. That was Christmas for me as a little girl.
Well, no wonder Christmas used to be so great, but now sucks so completely. Choosing what I want with the exquisite certainty that I will get it is gone from my life. It has been replaced with careful planning and strategizing for what I want (eg. saving for a new computer or learning how to be a good girlfriend) with the all-too-common experience of not getting what I want regardless of how much I want it, how hard I try to get it or how many times I ask for it. That's true all year round. At the holidays the few bona fide Christmas gifts I do receive from well-meaning people (and I do greatly appreciate them), are consistently not items I particularly want: bath sets, candles, scarf-and-glove combinations. No wonder it feels like the colorful lights have gone out of Christmas. As a single person who lives on her own, I'm also responsible for filling my holiday calendar with Christmas-y activities, or creating my own events. No longer can I just climb into the back seat. Now I decorate my own living space, buy my own dresses and seek out the activities I hope will fill me with the Christmas spirit.
But what do I mean by "Christmas spirit?" As a grown up consumer and tv-watcher, I think of "Christmas spirit" as the excitement of parties, the thrill of spending time with my favorite people, Gratitude For Everything, some vague globe-spanning sense of appreciation for all people, and a sterile, never-fully-manifested feeling of dull anticipation for "the birth of the baby Jesus." Yet none of that even begins to approach my childhood excitement about presents. I was raised Catholic but have never felt anything about "the birth of the baby Jesus" except a general gladness that it leads to receiving presents. Presents, presents, presents. That's what Christmas was about for me as a child and I suspect that's what Christmas is about to me as a grown up. For me "Christmas spirit" is made up of my feelings of anticipation and joy at receiving the things I most want, but the problem is that the Christmas gift machine shut down for me long ago. No wonder Christmas has felt empty and hollow for decades.
I believe having children shifts one's participation from gift-receiver to gift-giver and I can only hope parents get to re-experience some childhood magic through the joy of their children, but for those of us who are single and not parents, it's the lifelong withdrawal symptoms of no longer having a steady source of presents, unconditional love and caretaking at the holidays. Having realized that my main source of Christmas joy is a gift-receiving tradition I outgrew years ago, how do I develop a new tradition of "Christmas spirit?" I begin by asking myself, "Well, what do I want more than anything else today?"
I want excitement, I want love, I want connection with others. I want to feel that my stark experience of world-without-answers is shared by many others with whom I can whistle in the dark. I want to be inspired, I want to feel divinity up close, I want to know that I am all right, I am fantastic, I am an incredible gifted beautiful person surrounded by other incredible gifted beautiful people. I want community and laughter and tiny children getting under everyone's feet. I want the whole world to sparkle and I want to sparkle with it and I want it every day.
Were my childhood holidays characterized less by materialistic greed than by the feeling of being loved and taken care of that those gifts gave me? I remember never doubting that what I asked for was on the way, not once, and I was never disappointed. Not as a little girl. But now the secure feeling of being loved that those presents symbolized is gone and I want it back.
Now it is my grown up task, Herculean and Sisyphusian, to provide for myself the sense of love and community I need. I will never again be completely taken care of by another and part of my maturity is stepping in to fill the role of being my own caretaker. Unfortunately, I'm a much more complicated person now so what I want for Christmas might not be easy to find. Maybe knowing what it is I'm looking for will help me recognize it when I see it; maybe not. There's no Christmas certainty for grown ups.