Every year, I make myself wait until after Thanksgiving before I surrender to the Christmas season. It’s not because I’m a Scrooge – quite the opposite, actually. Picking out gifts for people is one of my favorite things. But, the holidays have always arrived with a curious mix of nostalgia for me. I might have never admitted this before, but I could listen to the Vince Guaraldi station on Pandora ad nauseam. But, every time I hear the first few piano notes from “Christmas Time is Here” I feel a bittersweet sadness. I have always wondered why that is. And, as life has changed and evolved for me over the past year, I am finally beginning to really understand.
When you’re little, Christmas is full of magic.
I still remember Christmas Eve one year (longer ago now than I’d like to admit) when I was convinced that I had heard Santa. I had gone to bed, but like any kid, I couldn’t sleep. The night was quiet, until I suddenly heard a thud on the roof. It HAD to be Santa and his reindeer. I was so beside myself that I ran into my parents’ room and excitedly let them know. Like a typical set of exhausted parents, they shared in my excitement but urged me to go back to bed so that Santa could work his magic.
All those years, and I never questioned why Santa always asked for a Pepsi with his plate of cookies. Or why the reindeer only took a small nibble out of the apple I continued to leave faithfully each year.
When you’re young, and you’re lucky enough to have a great family (and I understand now that some children aren’t), the holidays are a time when you feel happy and fulfilled, mostly because you’re still too young to really appreciate that happiness will eventually come in the non-material things that you don’t fully understand yet – warmth, security, memories, health. No, when you’re little, happiness is experienced in the magic of waking up on Christmas morning, the smell of coffee dripping as your dad sets up your Barbie Dream House.
As you get a little older, some of the sheen wears off. You go to school, get a job. Have bills to pay. Other shoppers to fight your way through at the mall. Maybe being an adult isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, at least how you thought it would be when you were younger and longed to be independent and self-sufficient. And yet, maybe in some ways it’s better. There are trade-offs to growing up, but one of the benefits is you can finally appreciate all the things you took for granted when you were five and all you thought about was whether or not Santa would remember that you wanted a Magic Nursery baby under the tree.
The last Christmas my family all had together was in 2011. For the first time, we hosted Christmas and had both our parents come to our cozy little townhouse at the time. We opened presents and ate turkey and homemade cookies and pie. I gave my dad a book about Custer’s last stand, and we talked about going to Montana (his dream) that next June to watch the re-enactment, which we never got to do. My parents gave me a Tar Heel Snuggie – no doubt my dad’s idea – which was simultaneously that corniest and BEST present I could have gotten. I took to immediately snuggling with it on the couch. I never knew that the next Christmas, we would be one short.
I never knew, that the year after that, I would be six months out from a life-changing injury. Sometimes, I wonder fleetingly, if my injury wasn’t some bad joke on behalf on my dad, to distract me from the numbing grief I felt over his loss.
So why is Christmas bittersweet? With each passing year, we get a little bit older. A little bit more aware of how tenuous life can be. We cherish the time that we have together, the twinkling lights, the cheesy movies (you’ll shoot your eye out, kid), the hope that maybe just once, we’ll have a white Christmas. And at the same time, we are reminded of the people and things we once had that are no longer with us. In this way, we can understand the paradox of being alive – the tangible joy and sadness that can exist side by side within us.
Six months out from a situation that could have had a very different result, I accept that this Christmas, I am different. A year out from losing my dad, I accept that my Pepsi-drinking Santa won’t be here again to sit across from me at Elmo’s. Twenty-five out from being a kid, I accept that I am too old to ask for a Dream House.
Yet, I take comfort in another Christmas. I will put up the tree and twinkling lights, and I will brave the mall because I like to make the people I care about feel good. There may be a sense of nostalgia and longing for something, always – but for now I long to enjoy the now.