This year I’m sharing some of my own winter holiday traditions on the blog, so I opened it up to anyone else who wanted to share too. My intention had been to post something special today because it’s Christmas Eve. I had fully expected to write that *something* myself, but then Leslie sent me her guest blog and I thought it was perfect for the job. I admire the honesty of Leslie’s story and her bravery in sharing something so personal with a lot of strangers. Thank you Leslie. You’re awesome.
My trek down from Mount Crumpit
When Rhonda Parrish posted on her blog the idea of people sending in Christmas traditions I thought it was a very nice idea. Then, I started thinking: “I guess I have traditions? What the heck are they? Why do I do them? How did they come to be?” I wanted to know how I grew from a child that despised Christmas into and an adult who loves it. So I had to go back, a very long way, to figure it out.
For the first seven years of my life I think I had enjoyable Christmases. I say, I think because I don’t remember them one way or another – I remember being infatuated with the bubble-lights that decorated my grandmother’s Christmas tree, but other than that I don’t have any clear memories.
Adult Leslie knows there was a lot of tension from my family during the holidays, but Little Leslie was completely oblivious to this. It was always grandma, grandpa, dad and I
You see, I was raised by my paternal grandmother (Grandma Jean) and spent very little time getting to know my mother, sister, or her side of the family during this time. I knew who they were, but Little Leslie didn’t understand who they really were. All of the tension soared over my three-foot-something head, and I had a jolly time during the holidays.
Rise to Grinchdom:
As I mentioned above, I was a person who hated Christmas. The first Christmas that sticks out in my mind was the very first one after my Grandma Jean passed away. I was seven. Living with mom and dad who were trying to make a difficult situation work and I was introduced to my older sibling as a living companion.
Everything was going wrong. Struggles for power, affection and independence were everywhere. I remember going to my mother’s parents’ house for Christmas. They were delighted to have me, and I was content as a seven-year-old to see them. Which really meant I was ambivalent about the whole thing. I remember walking over to their Christmas tree, looking for the bubble-lights and after finding none deciding something was wrong.
The whole visit caused me anxiety. I got presents from people who loved me, ate a nice dinner, slept in a new bed – but everything was foreign. None of the traditions I was used to were there. Dad didn’t come. Grandpa wasn’t there. And Grandma was gone forever.
They did a wonderful job at trying to make me feel comfortable. We even opened a few presents on Christmas Eve (which is one of my favorite traditions to this day) but something felt different.
Adult Leslie would tell Little Leslie (if she could) that it was okay it felt different. Of course it would. Things couldn’t be the way they were, we had to make new things. But no one told Little Leslie this in a way she could understand.
I started to hate the holidays.
And at the ripe age of seven school was starting to become particularly confusing. I had switched schools three times by the time I was eight. I am a pretty logical thinker, so when I started asking, “What is the meaning of Christmas?” I just wanted a straight answer. Maybe I was looking for what people expected of me. But everyone had a different answer, which just confused me and made me bitter.
Some people told me about religion, baking, family, turkey and anything else you can imagine. Add on the responses from my classmates that tended to value gifts over all things, and I got extremely confused. Some of the adults regurgitated the heartfelt and meaningful answers they felt they were supposed to, but then their actions showed me that Christmas meant something different to them entirely. And television was teaching me there was a whole different meaning to Christmas. And I wasn’t experiencing any of these things.
We never had much money, and my parents weren’t the most adept and at understanding what I was interested in. So when other kids my age measured their parents’ love in the gifts they got for Christmas, I was left at a loss. How do my own parents not know me? Why do these kids get this and I get that? I don’t want dolls, I want LEGO!
By the age of ten my paternal grandpa was entirely out of the picture and had turned to the bottle. He didn’t come around anymore and I felt as though another lifeline to the past Christmases with Grandma Jean was were gone.
Christmas became a time of argument and unrealistic expectations. After dad and mom split, dad was only too content to let us go with mom’s family. This made me feel like he didn’t want me around. My sister and I built a comfortable niche with mom’s family – where we could leave the chaos behind and just enjoy the holidays, but this didn’t sink in until my early twenties. And I always felt torn between the two worlds of my mom and dad.
Change of heart:
I started a new relationship when I was 19. The first Christmas we shared was with his family, and for the first time I felt as though I’d fallen into the television and was experiencing Christmas. Logically there wasn’t much of a difference, but what I saw changed my perspective.
They had steadfast traditions, a giant tree filled with presents, and so much love between them. Every present they opened was something the person wanted/needed. Then one present came around the bend and it was for me. I was shocked. I expected nothing that day. The gift was small but the meaning behind the gift was that “we want you to feel welcome.” And that was the important part.
The next year when I saw my father for Christmas I demanded we start a tradition. I was starving for tradition, any consistency and to feel like my family could have a normal holiday. We bought the movie the Grinch with Jim Carrey, and I said, “Dad, we are going to watch this every year we get together.” And we did.
When I was 18 I got my own independent source of income (i.e. a job), this opened the door of buying the gifts I wanted to for people. Apparently I was a natural gift buyer, and I found it gratifying when they opened it and realized I remembered something they had said a few years back.
A gradual shift began around that time. I moved seven hours north of home. The first year I didn’t make it back for Christmas. But the second year I found myself wanting to come back and spend the holidays with my family. I needed those subtle connections.
I started staying with my sister over the holidays, and she made sure to decorate her house for me when I was coming. She decorated because she knew a part of me wanted more than anything to feel the love of Christmas. My sister stepped outside of herself and defied her own hatred for the holiday, deciding as long as we were together it would work out.
When I came down for the holidays we started inviting our close friends over and having a post-Christmas get together that is now dubbed “Friend Christmas.” This was when I first felt the pull I had been wanting to feel since I was seven years old. It was a simple concept: friends spending time together because they love each other. Everyone brings a dish so there is not a ton of work placed on one person, we drink and we just have fun with zero expectation. The gift exchange during Friend Christmas is my favorite part, not because of the gifts, but because I know the person who bought me the gift knows me and understands me. Even if they buy me a bag of chips – it will be my favourite flavour.
In 2008 I bought and decorated my own tree. I made the decision that Christmas was going to mean to me whatever I wanted it to mean. It didn’t have to be about gifts, family, religion – it just had to something to me. That was all. I put on my green Christmas hat and decorated my tree! And for the first time I realized it was the expectations of the world around me that was making me hate Christmas. Not my own ideals, but the idea Christmas had to mean what they said it did.
I love the holidays. I love watching people do good things for each other. I had to decide that I wanted Christmas to mean something positive for me and go and chase that. It took a long time for me to figure out what that meant, but now that I have I am glad I did.
You can focus on the negative: crazy line ups, huge commercialization, religious pressures, higher grocery prices, heavy traffic, and a hundred other things. Or you can simplify: let Christmas be to you what you want it to be. You don’t have to stand in a five hour lineup to buy your kid the newest thing, get the biggest turkey, deal with an unbearable mother-in-law, wear the nicest clothes to the party, have the biggest tree, have a party for one hundred guests when you really only like five of them, or decorate your house with so many lights you can see it from space. You just have to be you, and be around people that love you for who you are. It’s that simple.
My traditions are simple: A person always has to wear a Christmas hat when they help decorate the tree, anyone can come decorate the tree, the Grinch is playing in the background while the house gets decorated, and we always have Friend Christmas.
These things have brought meaning to a holiday I used to find so loathsome. It’s about what it means to you – not what it means to your neighbor or to a celebrity or to your mother. To you. And only you.
Leslie Van Zwol is a writer who enjoys adding a dash of grit into her mystical worlds. Currently she lives and works in Lethbridge, Alberta – where the Christmases tend to be brown, to her chagrin. When she is not dabbling in dystopian realms you will generally find her hiking, travelling or dancing. For a daily dose of snark and occasional fun science facts you can find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/leslie.zwol and Twitter: @bobbistylz.