From a commercial point of view, if Christmas did not exist it would be necessary to invent it. — Katharine Whitehorn
He didn’t have to voice it. I could see it in his face, in the moisture gathered in his eyes, in the firm set of his jaw. Disappointment. “Do what you think is right,” he’d said. But I knew he didn’t mean that. He meant, “Do what I think is right. What the world thinks is right. Do what makes everybody happy.” The compromise was one I wasn’t willing to make. I refused to sacrifice my own happiness and peace of mind for the sake of theirs, and it is this point on which we disagreed.
“Can you understand?” I asked him. He didn’t say no, but his mouth remained shut, and his head slowly turned from left to right and back again. My heart collapsed in my chest. “Okay, so you don’t understand. I wish you could, but I can’t make you. Can you respect my decision?”
“Yes, honey. Of course I respect you.” He’d said it without hesitation. I sighed with bittersweet relief.
“I hate the holidays,” he had said on more than one occasion. “The obligation, the pressure, the spending money on things that people don’t need.” I hadn’t always agreed with him. I grew up loving Christmas. The streets sparkling with lights, the smell of goodies baking at every turn, the idea of lighting a fire even though it rarely gets cold enough in San Diego to need one, and, most of all, the abundance of brightly wrapped gifts under an enormous, ornament-bedecked tree. But change is the only constant, and my opinion is no exception to the rule.
“I’m not celebrating Christmas this year.” I’d made the announcement to my mother, in a firm, matter-of-fact tone.
“Because I don’t want to.” It was imperative I make no excuses. It had taken me months of introspection and reasoning to reach the decision. I couldn’t falter now because of some loophole someone else might find in my process.
“You don’t want anything?”
“No. I have everything I’ve ever wanted and more.”
“Don’t get me anything, then.” It was a dare. I was prepared.
“I wasn’t going to.” Explanations piled in my chest, climbed up my throat, and threatened to spill from my mouth, but I choked them back. The “not participating in seasonal gift exchanges has nothing to do with how much I love everyone” spiel, the “Christmas is for kids and I’m not interested in the frenzy of children ripping through presents” saga, and the “I’m not Catholic anymore, and the commercialization of everything is a bit gross to me” rigmarole. I swallowed them all and kept my face blank.
My mother stared at me for a moment and then said, “Okay.” She was surprisingly acquiescent. Perhaps, I thought, this was a sign of understanding and acceptance. Maybe, I hoped, she wants me to do whatever it is that makes me happy, even if what makes me happy conflicts with what makes her happy.
You’re not supposed to admit that you don’t enjoy the holidays. Oh, there are aspects I still enjoy, like the smell of baking and the shimmering lights on every street. But the obligatory giving, the mental balancing of the Universal Gift Ledger, the madness of going to the mall, the expectations, and resulting stress didn’t seem worth it; the way, once you reach a certain age, the distress of Sunday-morning hangovers keeps you from raving it up on Saturday nights. Christmas has been fun for me, but the downside began to eclipse the upside, bringing me to the realization that it’s just not my holiday anymore. My heart wasn’t in it, and I didn’t want to fake it.
This season, I walked around pretending I was Jewish. Or Hindu. Or atheist. I pretended I was a person who did not grow up with the tradition of Christmas in her household so that I wouldn’t feel like there was anything missing. It wasn’t very hard because I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything important — spending time with my family is important, but I don’t need the 25th of December in order to do that. So what else? Additional credit card debt? Super caloric food and lots of it? Receiving presents? Presents are all fine and good, and I appreciate it when someone is thoughtful on my behalf, but there is nothing I need, and the last thing I want is to pile additional stress upon friends and family to spend time and money they might better spend on themselves hunting down something they think I might like because they feel like they should. I don’t need a holiday in order to buy a gift for someone I love, especially a holiday of a religion I don’t practice.
My family, however, does practice the religion, and they enjoy every aspect of the gift-giving season, and I can appreciate and respect their customs. After all, I grew up in the same household, enjoying the same things. My sisters now have children who look forward to Santa’s nocturnal visit with the same fevered anticipation we used to have. I can understand the joy they receive in recapturing the magic through the eyes of their kids. For me — the curmudgeonly aunt — the “magic” has transmogrified into “noise,” and the sound of children screaming with delight or otherwise gives me a headache. Doesn’t mean I don’t love them. Doesn’t mean I don’t want to hug and squeeze them and hear all about their thoughts and feelings on the world that is still so new to them. It only means that I do not enjoy the sound of screaming. Not wanting to celebrate Christmas does not mean I don’t love spending time with my family, it only means I don’t want to celebrate Christmas.
On the day of Christmas Eve, I called my sisters and parents. I told them I loved them. I told them I hoped they would have a great Christmas day and that David and I would be heading to Ensenada with friends. I told them I looked forward to spending time with them when I returned. I didn’t explain myself, and they didn’t ask me to, but I got the sense that on some level, they knew that my not wanting to sit under the tree and sing carols had nothing to do with how much I loved each and every one of them.
The day was warm, and the sky was clear, so I suggested to David that we walk to Balboa Park, as we had plenty of time before joining our friends for the drive to Ensenada.
“Tell me that it’s okay,” I said, as David and I strolled around the lily pond looking for koi.
“Tell you what’s okay?”
“Tell me I’m not an asshole.”
“Babe, the fact that you’re even concerned that you might be means you’re not,” David said.
“Thanks,” I said, and reached for his hand. “Sometimes I just need to hear it.”