Anyone who knows me can tell you I am not a fan of Christmas. I haven’t always felt this way. As a kid, my eyes would fly open at 4 a.m., adrenaline rushing until I’d sneak out of bed to see if Santa had eaten his cookies (he had). My heart would pound at the landslide of presents around the tree. I’d tiptoe into my sister’s room to ask if it was time to wake Mom and Dad (it wasn’t). Would I do it anyway? (Of course. With gusto.)
They didn’t seem to mind. My mother’s joy at watching us kids open gifts (and at opening her own) was unmistakable. She prepared for months and always went overboard. It was the one time of year we seemed “middle class.” (We weren’t.) By my university years, my feelings about Christmas had evolved. So had my feelings about a lot of things. When I was 20, I stumbled into a delightfully unexpected romance with the woman who would become my life partner. But conditions were not conducive to coming out. My dad was ill with leukemia and my mom was…very Catholic.
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Somehow, for the first 20-odd years of our relationship, my love and I never had a Christmas together. At first, it was because we weren’t out. Then it was because our families lived in different provinces. When they were finally all in one place and we were out, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to put our partnership first.
This was mostly because I had a whole lot of Catholic guilt about being a disappointment to my mom. Deep in her heart of hearts, all she’d wanted was average kids who would marry a person of the opposite sex, get a “good job,” adhere to the Catholic faith and give her grandkids (especially the grandkids part). But my siblings and I might best be described as “nonconformists” — and none of us have kids. So I suppose because there wasn’t a next generation to inspire new traditions, my mother fought to make sure her own Christmas remained immutable. Every year, for decades, we decorated the same way and practised the same rituals. Every year, she outdid herself with the presents.
Eventually the joy was gone for me. I came to dread the season: the predictability, the excess, the pretending. Years of frustration at my own failure to prioritize my relationship (the way any couple might) had led me to an almost inevitable conclusion about Christmas: I hated it.
It’s a feeling I haven’t gotten past. My mother died in 2007, and at that point I found myself profoundly wrapped up in feelings of loss and anger and, goddammit, nostalgia. I was freed from her traditions and could finally ask myself what I wanted from Christmas. But I truly had no idea.
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My amazing spouse, who actually finds joy in the season and has patiently waited years for me to jettison the family baggage, is understandably frustrated by my confusion. Even as I was writing this piece, I thought, “Maybe it’s time I really try to embrace Christmas — for her sake.” I put this to my partner and she laughed.
“I don’t need you to embrace Christmas,” she said. “That wouldn’t be you. But it would be nice if you could hate it a little less. Do you think you can do that?”
I gave it some thought. I’ll likely always cringe when I hear the first strains of White Christmas. I doubt I’ll ever regain the excitement I had as that kid who left cookies for Santa. But I can appreciate that my mom did her best for us, and that her excesses were driven by love.
So can I put aside the resentment and the grief and the anger, and put my partnership first, whatever that entails? I think I finally can. Or at least I can try.
Angela Mombourquette is a writer and editor in Halifax.
This essay first appeared in Broadview’s December 2022 issue with the title “My complicated Christmas.”
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Debra Leedham says:
Many people have problems celebrating "Christmas" for various reasons personal to them. It seems that people get caught up more in feelings rather than thinking about the theology. Because of our feelings, we can develop problems with this holiday. Christmas has become a cultural tradition where the theology is overshadowed.