“It’ s coming on Christmas. They’ re cutting down the trees. They’ re putting up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace. Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on.” – Joni Mitchell.
It was a few days before Thanksgiving when I started hearing Christmas songs. I usually welcome the sounds of the season and the time invariably flies until December 25th. But not this year. A deep feeling of dread drew its heavy arms around me and tightened its grip as the holidays too quickly approached. Hearing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” only made me feel numb. I wanted to fold the enveloping sadness I felt into a pocket-sized package and hide it away until January.
It’s been almost a year since my father slipped and hit his head picking up the newspaper in his own driveway. Because he was taking a blood-thinner, the bleeding in his brain couldn’t be stopped and he died in the hospital on Christmas Eve. He was on life-support and it was a family decision to let him go.
It’s coming up on the one-year mark and because of that senseless loss at Christmas last year, some post-traumatic stress is emerging. There is a dread of hearing the songs, putting up the decorations, shopping for the gifts, planning the meals, baking and decorating the sugar cookies. The details, large and small now seem to be burdensome, no longer the joys associated with the holidays.
My dad reveled in Christmas. He was always at his best when he was surrounded by family. He was the “founder of the feast,” the enthusiastic carver of ham and turkey. An inveterate last-minute shopper, he spent Christmas Eve, sometimes until midnight, at the old Thrifty drugstore and he always surprised us by bringing home the biggest tree (and often the last one) from the local Christmas tree lot. Gifts were not just the presents, but the adventure in finding them. He would have different ways of giving us an extra kick in their presentation. Sometimes I had to open boxes within boxes to find the ultimate prize. One year he hid my new tv behind my bed (it had been there for over a week) and gave me a small box with instructions on how to find it. It was a family joke that my dad would guess what was in his own, poorly-wrapped Christmas packages. He was invariably correct but sometimes he would laugh, holding up a tiny odd-shaped box and announce that it must be an umbrella.
I remember the hushed conversations he had with my mother as Christmas approached when I was a kid. They would whisper in Portuguese, my Brazilian mother’s native language, and I knew that they were discussing mysterious Christmas gifts. On Christmas Eve my father made sure that the five of us were snug in our beds behind our closed doors. He would pretend to hang bells on the bedroom doorknobs so that he said he could hear us trying to sneak down too early on Christmas morning. The “bells” were actually just my dad going from door to door stirring an empty glass with a spoon to get the tinkling sound effect. It worked all too well to keep us in our beds.
Christmas was his favorite time of year and it seems particularly cruel that he was taken from us on Christmas Eve, that night of wonder and anticipation.
My husband reminded me that everyone has lost people they love and they are missed, especially at Christmas. He’s right. It’s not necessary to clothe the whole season in mourning because my father happened to pass away on Christmas Eve. We all miss those who have left empty chairs at holiday tables and we always will. But it’s up to us who remain to continue the traditions and deck the halls so that we don’t lose the joy, as the song says, of those “golden days of yore.” Besides, I realized that my joyful, generous dad would not want his family to associate Christmas with sadness because of him. He would want us to enjoy the season and the day as much as he had.
The past has a way of pulling our minds and hearts back to those who were part of our lives and left us but maybe we can remember those still flickering magical moments while we appreciate the wonder and beauty of the world and those who remain with us.
Yes, I am hearing the songs of Christmas differently this year. But now I am choosing to listen with more appreciation and less sorrow. My enthusiasm for Christmas is still softened by missing my dad. But the cookies have to be baked, perhaps fewer decorations hung but cards will be sent and the gifts will still be wrapped and delivered.
So I resolve to “hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” May we value those who are still here among us and remember to have for ourselves and for them, a “Merry Little Christmas Now.”