Anne T. Donahue on Having Yourself a Realistic Little Christmas

There is no perfect dinner, no flawless gift. There's you, and there are the people you're surrounded by, and everyone's just trying their best

A photo of a Charlie Brown-esque Christmas tree

(Photo: iStock)

This article was originally published on December 8, 2017

I usually like the holidays. I’m here for the food and for the friends and for the family. I like excuses to hang out and dress up and reminisce about what the last 52 weeks brought and how much we learned (or didn’t) from everything we said and did. This year, I have two Advent calendars because I am a grown-up woman in charge of her life. Last year I just wanted to get through it.

My relationship with death is a complicated one. I’m true crime obsessed and toyed with being a forensic scientist when CSI made it seem like a glorified detective job (LOL). I’ve seen my share of death, and I can usually file it away. I deal with loss and tragedy or my inability to feel feelings on my own time, away from anyone who wants to hug me. I know death is a part of life, and I know that I’m fine with not really knowing what happens after that. I still don’t like to mix it with holidays. According to movies and Instagram uploads, holidays are supposed to be perfect.

The Thanksgiving I was 17, my nana died of cancer, and it took about ten years not to immediately associate the two. The Thanksgivings in-between were defined by the Last One: the dinner we had the week before when I drank too much and cried in front of Monsters Inc (which is largely why I won’t watch animated movies anymore) while my five-year-old cousin watched me, concerned. For years, Thanksgiving wasn’t leaves and sunshine and family time, but another anniversary of not having my nana there to hang out with. It felt forced. It felt sad. And then, thanks to time, those feelings went away.

My uncle died one year ago this week, and I still miss him every day. He’d been admitted to hospital the week of American Thanksgiving (that f-cking holiday), and died on a Monday morning two weeks later after a short walk around the hospital. His visitation and funeral were defined by funeral home Christmas trees, wreaths, and garland, and we sat at my aunt and (other) uncle’s after the funeral surrounded by even more markers of holiday joy. I drove my cousin back to his mum’s in the cold and snow while radio Christmas carols played in the background, and I rallied the following Sunday to get some shopping done. Because that’s the thing about death and tragedy and all other life events that inevitably happen: none of them give a shit about our holidays and they erase the myth of perfection around them as we know it.

To assume Christmas or any holiday will be perfect because it’s “supposed” to be is a huge misstep, especially since we know perfection doesn’t exist (and never has). Our family dynamics are messy and our histories are complex and dark and complicated and fuelled by years of learned behaviours and weird seating arrangements. On our own, we are disaster-people, trying our best to navigate our day-to-day lives. So that, juxtaposed atop the pressure of the holidays amongst the people who know us, love us, tolerate us, or even can’t stand us (there’s always that one family member) is the recipe for one power-cry alone in your car. Which is fine. Families are hard. Holidays are hard. Life is hard. So maybe this holiday season gets to be realistic.

And embracing realism isn’t bad nor does it make you pessimistic or even cynical. It simply gives you an out: instead of planning and plotting and micromanaging Christmas dinner like a 2017 version of Clark Griswold, you let go of that control and accept that perfection has never been real, that the holidays are hard for a lot of people, and if you can find a sliver of joy somewhere in yours, it doesn’t matter whether it’s accompanied with decor or cookies or anything other than you finding an escape hatch from the ideologies that take up so much of the holiday season. Because look: there is no right way to decorate, no perfect dinner, no flawless gift. There’s you, and there are the people you’re surrounded by, and everyone’s just trying their best. And that’s enough.

A few days after we buried my uncle, I was lucky to be graced with the Nothing Matters™  feeling that goes along with losing anybody who means a lot. So you do your work, you hang with friends, and bask in the glow that nothing seems too daunting or worth worrying about because a worst case scenario has been crossed off the list. It isn’t a permanent feeling and in time, you’ll be dealt a wallop of grief, but it’s a reprieve. I rode my Nothing Matters™ wave over Christmas Eve at my mom’s sister’s where we laughed and joked and watched White Christmas, and they told me how sorry they were to hear about my dad’s brother. The next day, we got together again for late lunch, and I, in my Nothing Matters™ glory scrolled through my phone and announced that George Michael died.

Everybody went quiet, and within 20 minutes, they’d disbanded for the year. It wasn’t perfect. It was the furthest thing from perfect. But it was real, and when it comes to holidays, that’s all I’m interested in.

More from Anne T. Donahue:
The Best (Worst) Holiday Party Conversation Starters
The Shopping Mall as a Safe Space
How to be a Responsible True Crime Obsessive