Christmas Blues? From Presents to Presence

For many years, decades even, I would feel a strange, strong, icky, yucky, even gunky gloom in my solar plexus and heart as the Christmas season approached. Like clockwork, as December began I would begin — to go down, down, and stay there, estranged from my surroundings, no matter how “celebratory” I tried to seem on the outside. I noticed this gunky awfulness first when my two sons were small. I wanted to give them a magical Christmas, the way I had experienced Christmas a a child, the scent of the freshly cut Christmas tree, with its twinkling balls and tiny lights cheering up the cold grey of deep winter. Our large family was typical, in that everybody got a pile of presents, which sat enticingly under the tree until Christmas morning, after Santa had placed a few more here and there the night before, and we got to unwrap our pile, one by one, taking turns.

Usually we got what we had asked for, if it wasn’t too extravagant. One unstated rule in our household: everybody gets the same privileges and the same requirements. No exceptions. On the one hand, I appreciated this rule; it assured fairness. On the other hand, it did  not really allow for differences, and tended to lump eight squirmy individuals together as the same.

One year, as a teenager, I had asked for a Jantzen sweater. And, in fact, sometime in November had snuck into Mom’s closet and saw a right-sized box there, with my name on it, labeled The Paris (where Jantzen sweaters were sold in town).

Finally, Christmas morning arrived. Thrilled, I finally got to tear open the now wrapped box. And . . .  oops! a sweatshirt! A sweatshirt?? Geez!

It might have been the same year when second in line, Marnie, was so disappointed in her presents that she actually had a fit and started wailing. I doubt any of us will ever forget that scene.

Next up:  Christmas breakfast. Since we all took turns with chores, one year it was my turn to set the table on Christmas morning. I started to take a big platter of scrambled eggs out to the dining room when my hand slipped and it crashed to the floor. Oops! Quickly, not even missing a beat, Mom hurried over with another platter, stooped down and scooped  the eggs onto it, saying, “No big deal. I washed the floor yesterday. — But don’t tell anybody!” She was like that. She could take a tragedy and turn it on its ear.

Of course the Christmas breakfast was raucous, eight kids all excited to get to play with our new stuff and couldn’t wait to get breakfast done with.

From there on, the day started to wind down. Oh yes, Mom still had to fix a turkey for Christmas dinner, but that ritual paled in comparison to that first long anticipated early morning hour when, after a year-long wait, we finally got to open our presents.

I remember, as a child, noticing that I counted the years from Christmas to Christmas, excited to realize, in August, for example, that only four months remained until that magical time. That time out of time, when a certain spirit pervaded the air. A spirit that, when I look back on it now, had not so much to do with the opening of the presents as it did with the presence and aroma of the pine tree standing tall and bright in the center of the west wall of the living room.

Searching for the answer to “when did the tradition of Cbristmas Tree start?
most internet accounts take it back to Germany, 15th century. But who knows? In any case, the unusual phenomenon of bringing such a large being from the natural world into the constructed human world was, and remains,  a profound, though symbolic act that unites us with our origins.

I doubt most people think of Christmas this way. I didn’t either back then. I thought Christmas had to do with presents, and yet what I actually longed for, indeed how I measured time throughout the year, was how far or close it was to the presence of the Christmas to come.

So then, how to account for the yucky ickiness I began to feel as young adult? Part of it, I sense, had to do with the fact that I just did not feel “up to” providing that sense of magic and mystery that came so easily when I was growing up, and which I trace to Mom’s ease at creating atmospheres of any kind. And part of it, I realized in my 40s, when I finally began to get ahold of myself and heal from emotional wounds Orphan Annie had received throughout my childhood, that Christmas itself was a cover for the woundedness I did feel inside.

Now I am eternally grateful that I did do this internal work back in my 40s. It relieved Christmas of carrying such an unnoticed karmic burden. And I wonder how many people still feel the Christmas Blues, as they struggle to both get into the spirit of Christmas and to not feel all the old wounds that still fester from childhood.

May we all be at peace during this blessed holy time!



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