What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
This Christmas was my fifth without my family, but my first spent alone -- and that was probably one of the best decisions I have made in a long time.
Christmas was always an important tradition for my family. We weren't church-goers so it wasn't overly religious, but there was an underlying understanding that it had to with Jesus, so it wasn't really secular for us either.
It was definitely about family, though. We were always poor, before my parents split up and after my dad took off. We were so poor that the year my dad was laid off, we were one of the recipient families of the fire department's community charity drives. Ironically, that was our best Christmas. Even in our more stable years, we never would have been able to afford the Super Nintendo or the kind of meal we received.
My mother is a German immigrant, so we always celebrated Christmas with the four Sunday advents leading up to the big day, and then our celebration itself fell on Christmas Eve, rather than Christmas Day. Each consecutive Advent Sunday, we would light the next candle in the Advent wreath, until all four flickered on the last day. We would sing carols and spend the evening together. On Christmas Eve, when my brothers and I were young enough to still believe in Santa, we were sent upstairs to our rooms to "nap," in order to not be tired while we were celebrating into the night. While we "napped," Santa would drop by. When everything was ready, our parents would call us down, and we would sing a couple of carols before being allowed into the living room, where the tree would be lit and our gifts from Santa would have been mixed amongst the family presents. As we got older and left Santa behind, we helped set up the living room for the evening. There were a couple of years when my Oma lived nearby and we spent Christmas Eve at her house, where she stuffed us full of marzipan and German Christmas cookies.
Four years ago, though, I cut most ties with my mother. I moved in with my then-boyfriend, and spending Christmas with his family in Ontario seemed like the reasonable thing to do.
A year later, I still wasn't speaking with my mother and my boyfriend and I had broken up. But we were still living together, so it seemed reasonable at the time to spend Christmas with his family again. Looking back, that was probably a terrible decision (among many terrible decisions I made in relation to him).
His family was always incredibly gracious, warm, and welcoming. Not one unkind word was ever offered to me, and they went out of their way to try to make me feel at home. But there is something inherently painful about spending Christmas with an intact family when yours is not, especially when your traditions are so different. Though no fault of him or his family, it was like having my estrangement rubbed in my face: "Come, see this family hold each other close and care for each other, while yours makes a concerted effort to not." These feelings bubbled up both years, probably fueled by wine and the eventual breakup.
Needless to say, the third year I did not spend Christmas with his family. I spent it instead with a friend and her fiancé, neither of whom could afford to go home for the holidays. It was quiet, and low-key. There was a Christmas tree and my friend put together a stocking for me. We watched silly movies and ate a lot of chocolate. I got to watch the two of them participate in their own small family, and in their own growing traditions. It certainly wasn't as painful as being surrounded by the large, intergenerational festivities in my ex's home, but there was still that pang of feeling like an outsider in someone else's family when mine simply refused to work cohesively.
I intended to spend last year alone. I thought I needed a reset button, to decompress, address some of the feelings I was facing, take stock of what I wanted and needed from all of the traditional family celebrations that I was finding myself on the outside of now. However, an unexpected snowstorm and car troubles rendered my partner and his brother unable to join their family in Prince Edward Island, so I spent Christmas with them, playing Magic: the Gathering and reading Charles de Lint. It was nice. There was no pressure and much less fanfare than the year at my friend's. Since the family had intended to spend Christmas elsewhere, there was no tree, no gift unwrapping, no stockings. Just some boozy hot chocolate to drink and squishy couches to doze on and "Die Hard" to watch for the first time.
But this year, I knew I needed the holiday to myself. I needed to press that reset button I had intended to last year. I laid out plans for the ultimate self-care Christmas: I would take a bath, read a good book, eat whatever was around the house, and sleep whenever I wanted. I was invited to spend Christmas with multiple families -- my friends', my partner's -- but I declined, which turned out to be my first act of self-care. At first I felt bad because I didn't want anyone to think I was ungrateful or didn't want to be around them, but I realized that wanting to take care of my own needs was not a bad thing, that doing so didn't make me a bad person, and anyone who thought differently didn't deserve my justifications. The result was a very uneventful but pleasing Christmas.
In family tradition, I "celebrated" on Christmas Eve. I slept in late and then ate leftover finger food from the gift exchange my roommates and I'd had before they had left to visit their families. Reheated sausage rolls, flaky quiche pastry things, jalapeno poppers, and a cheese ball with crackers. I think that may have been my most satisfying Christmas breakfast to date.
I took a bath, and it lasted hours. I read my book -- "Fort Starlight" by Claudia Zuluaga -- and my cat Freddie curled up next to the tub and slept while I soaked and read. I refilled the hot water three times. It was divine. I didn't get out until I felt like I was falling asleep and decided drowning would put a damper on my day.
I napped more. I ate cookies I had baked, and the chocolate dipped pretzels that my friend had brought by a couple of days earlier. I read some more.
When it got dark enough, I got dressed, loaded an hour-long Vinyl Cafe Christmas podcast onto my phone, and went out to wander the streets and look at Christmas lights. In true Nova Scotia fashion, it had been raining most of the day. The fog cast a very pretty haze around the lights. Stuart McLean read a short story sent in by a listener; it was a good kind of sad and I had a good cry. Then he launched into telling the Vinyl Cafe story, and I couldn't help but spend most of my walk laughing out loud and trying not to alarm passersby with my sudden brays. That was probably my best idea all day.
It was during my walk, watching the Christmas lights and seeing little groups of people and children slog through the drizzle towards the neighbourhood church, that I had my light bulb moment: I had never given myself an opportunity to create my own traditions. My family unit had changed drastically: right now it's me and my cats at its core, and my dearest friends surrounding us. While I walked past the brightly lit family homes in my neighbourhood, listening to the Vinyl Cafe and really, truly enjoying myself, I realized that I needed to recognize the family I had now, and start building my own traditions.
When I got home I made a pot of pasta with sauce from a can, wrangled my cats into a family portrait, and read into the wee hours of the morning. I spent most of Christmas Day in bed, feeling no regrets or obligations. I thought about what I wanted to carry forward from this year, what traditions I might start. A walk to see the lights and listen to the Vinyl Cafe: definitely. A family portrait with the cats: definitely. I guess I'll have to see what else carries over.
I think next year, I'll find friends to spend Christmas with, but I'm incredibly grateful that I had the opportunity to hit my reset button this year. I'm looking forward to building my own traditions going forward, and to whatever else the new year will bring.