November 19, 2021

The Rockwell Christmas

Rockwell Christmas
I'm WillowjakMama!

My blog started as a way to document my journey to wellness, but turned into a place to be inspired by others through our collective messy & authentic stories. Now it's my favourite place to be.

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As the season of holly-jolly is once again opening up, I am pre-dreading my usual holiday level of anxiety. Hating it, and truly wishing that this year I can finally change that for the better.

(Side note: This season for me means Christmas, but I also recognize in the spirit of inclusivity that it means a whole lot of other things to a whole lot of other people who aren’t Christian-faith-based or North American… I see you, but I can only write about what I know, so please bear that in mind.)

Don’t get me wrong; I totally love the holiday season. I love the idea of celebrations in general. I love the beauty of the new winter season and all it brings to slow life down a little (just don’t remind me in April about my love for winter as I may be salty AF by then about it still hanging in). I love parties and dressing up. I LOVE sourcing and giving gifts, whether it be those I have made myself, or adventure presents and other baubles I’ve sourced out. I adore all the foods that come with the season and the chance to drink bubbly on the regular. I love the music and the cheesy store decorations and the shopping hustle. I actually even love the wrapping and the stocking stuffing. The watching of all my favourite movies. The reflection on the birth of Christ and the redemption of humanity it signifies. ALLLLL the things.

What I don’t like is the anxiety that comes entwined in all of this for me. And how that has notched up even more in recent years. The anxiety that comes from the expectations that I put on myself for perfection and covering off, well, Every. Single. Thing. Ergo, the title of this post. The ultimate Norman Rockwell painting of the perfect Christmas that haunts my psyche from November 1 to January 1, every damn year.

But first let me set the background so you get it…

I was fortunate to grow up in a pretty idyllic Christmas household. We lived in the country and it always snowed, it seemed. My parents were genetically pre-disposed Christmas lovers like I am. I remember my dad mounting up his big reel-to-reel tape deck on my parents’ kitchen desk right after Halloween, and every day we got to hear that giant tape of all the holiday classics play. Sometimes, more than once through. Our days were full of the anticipation of the big day itself, with all of us doing our shopping and squirrelling away our wrapped presents. Christmas pageants at school and caroling with friends. Me, doing my Mom’s cards in calligraphy (taught to me by Dad) to be mailed by Thanksgiving. Prior to that, my little brother and I sat going through the JC Penney Christmas Catalogue and marking up everything we “wanted” (a list no parent could ever fulfill, but it sure was fun to mark up those pages and dream!) My mom was very good at hiding, but also had the attitude that if you wanted to spoil your Christmas morning by snooping, that was your prerogative, but that she would be very disappointed in you for doing so. (Mom dropping the D-bomb on any occasion was the worst feeling)

My mom had two trees – the “good” tree that was in the living room window, and the second tree in the family room where all the action happened.

The “good” tree was a silver affair, with the branches like little pom-pom ended things in paper sleeves that you freed and then stuck into a silver spray-painted wooden pole in order of size, top to bottom. There was zero attempt to make any of it look anything like an actual tree of course. There was not a pre-strung twinkle light to be found on it. The decorations were silver and blue, and then the coup-de-grace was this round ball floodlight affair that sat on the floor, with a rotating circular disk in front of the light that alternated red, blue, yellow and green cellophane sections and shone up on the tree so that the tree took on the various hues. All very sixties and ultra-modern, right in the big picture window, like the leg lamp in A Christmas Story. We also, incongruously, had this little white steepled church music box that sat under that tree on the tree skirt (also white and silver). I cannot count how many hours I spent lying on the sculpted wall-to-wall carpet of the mostly otherwise-forbidden living room watching the colours change on the tree and re-winding the music box. I wrapped all my presents in there. I did my December homework in there. I wrote Mom’s cards in there. It was my Christmas oasis of solitude.

The family room tree was quite the opposite. It was a fat, full, “snow”-tipped and pre-lit green affair, one that my mother was very proud of and would let NO ONE assist in the assembly of. That was HER space, assembling that tree. Ornaments of all kinds jammed its branches, both made/gifted and bought (many Hallmark dated, we got those every year), yards of ribbon once that became a thing, and a star. When we were still “true believers”, no gifts were put under it until the 24th. As we aged, that got relaxed and we all wrapped and placed at will.

Outdoors was not on the Griswold scale, but I sure do remember untangling all of those old-style, flame shaped, multi-coloured lights and assisting my Dad in the freezing cold of November in Buffalo as he festooned the eaves and trees in the yard. I loved coming home on the “late bus” from after-school activities, and seeing my house all lit up as I walked from the corner bus stop to the dead end where our house was.

We had an old farm pond in walking distance through the fields to skate on during the Christmas school break. We pulled old-school aluminum snow saucers around tracks in the back fields behind snowmobiles until they were so dented-up that they no longer worked. (Then we moved on to the toboggan; Mom was NOT impressed). There were always tins of cookies and goodies and leftover turkey and stuffing sandwiches.

Christmas Eve was a quiet time of watching movies and getting to bed early to await the big arrival. Of putting the turkey in overnight on low temps as was my Mom’s insistence as the only way to make a turkey (a method that often resulted in a dryish bird that my ex came to refer to as “the dry rot method”, which makes me laugh to this day just thinking about it.) Christmas Day was a mélange of the gift madness, a lot of NFL, and my mom’s traditional turkey dinner. All in our pjs. The days off after that were halcyon in their endless swaths of time to read, go outside and do snow and ice things, more football, going to the movies, hanging with friends, etc.

All in all, it was pretty awesome. And I never thought for a minute that as I aged that Christmas would ever be different. Or how much work went on that I didn’t see to make it so. But then, I think that about most things I like, I have come to realize. Of course, like everything else in this life, the opposite is true and everything is bound to change and evolve in some way. And we all know how excellent (NOT) I am at adapting to change, especially surrounding my holiday observances. Enter anxiety, in full regalia.

When my kids were younger, we carried on in pretty much the same way that both our families had, and happily divvied up between my family and my in-laws, with the kids getting maximum grandparent time and probably way more sugar and presents than they should have. We did myriad things to keep the magic alive (including my ex, after a few too many eggnogs and bourbon, deciding to make sleigh tracks on the roof with a waterskiing rope from an iced-over yard. Hilarity ensued, but I digress.) In any case, Christmas Idyllic carried on. I felt that we added our own traditions well to this, such as Christmas Tree Day, where we went and cut our own. We both preferred the real tree to an artificial. The only concession was alternating years between pine (for him) and spruce (for me). And, we always took great-grampa Mike’s old handsaw; no chainsaws for this bunch of traditionalists! As the girls grew and moved on to university and other cities, we evolved into never putting the angel on top until everyone was home. One year, when our youngest was living in Banff and had a service industry job, she couldn’t come home ’til late January for her “Christmas” visit with family. So, much to my ex’s dismay, I insisted that the tree be left up and all decorations left in place until January 25th (her birthday) when they arrived for what was dubbed “Caitmas”. It is indeed a wonder any needles were left and nothing caught fire that year, but we happily adapted and got a wonderful time out of it all. In ensuing years, there were Christmases via FaceTime instead of real face time, but it was always a celebration. It was the normal evolution of life, it felt.

But, underlying even all those happy memories was me, stressing out at 4am on Christmas morning finishing up the wrapping in front of infomercials, where I had been all night since the kids went to bed. My ex frantically assembling the various structures in the Euro Barbie House from Hell I bought, in the basement at all hours, or asking me numerous times to just sit in the evening with him, with me replying that I had WAY too much to DO, to just sit down! The endless daily planning lists of what to pre-cook when, whose gifts to have ready when, all the various “days”; tree, lights, cookies, parties, yadda, yadda, yadda. Stress city.

My mantra seemed to have become Ellen Griswold’s in “Christmas Vacation”, as she explains to Audrey why she has to sacrifice to accommodate her grandparents:

“Well, I don’t know what to say except It’s Christmas and we’re all in misery.”

Somewhere in the planning and attempted re-creation of my idyllic (and probably over-idealized) childhood holiday seasons that I wanted to carry on for my own family; I got very little enjoyment myself, drank WAY too much sooth-wine, and spent more time away from my family than with it as I overloaded myself with making sure every little detail to make it, well, Rockwellian, was looked after.

I had come to feel at the end of it all more like George Bailey on the bridge than his guardian angel Clarence. (p.s. It’s A Wonderful Life has become my favourite of all the Christmas movies I love so much, hands down. Sometimes I even need to watch it in August to get my head right again.)

What I missed seeing, is that although my kids still love their traditions even as adults; what they didn’t love was a stressed-out mom. That my ex didn’t like a stressed-out wife who was always five days in the future obsessing details rather than living in the now and taking time to once again sit by a tree, make a fire and just reflect. Hmm.

Flash forward to the now.

Ironically, Christmas now is often just me and the dogs for the most part. LOTS of down-time and quiet. Too much, at times. No more dinners for twelve to plan. Parents and in-laws sadly all gone now. In the divvying up of family time, Christmas Eve is now with Dad, and Christmas brunch with mom (both of which when kids can even make it home), and then the rest of the family’s time with their friends and their partners’ families. Time with my ex’s new in-laws. Again; normal life evolution, but a lot lonelier when you live alone and there isn’t the partner still there when they leave. Let’s not even talk about what Covid did to Christmas. I find the stress now is more about “will I see them at all this year?”, “will they want what we did before or something else?”, “how do I make the most of my little window of time with them all” and “why do I feel like such a loser for having so much time alone when this time of year is all about family?”; as opposed to the stress of “will I get it all done?”..

Again, I have been putting unrealistic expectations on myself, and more than likely stressing out my kids and my friends in the process. Simply because it’s hard for others to enjoy what you’ve set up, when you are not enjoying it too. When you are so tired from the mad dash of prep that you are too tired to enjoy the company that you ironically drove yourself mad preparing to host. When you’re salty about it changing, instead of enjoying whatever it brings.

I spent a lot of time in the last few years feeling inadequate, because with my current life situation, I can’t create that Rockwell Christmas anymore. No loving couple at the head of my table, just me. There’s no one to “divide and conquer” the list with. Heck, one of the kids won’t even come to my table anymore at all and has taken the rest of her family with her. The other kid is in the US, living a crazy work life that she loves, with limited time off, and with in-laws there who also create lovely Christmases down there that she wants to be part of. We are not a house united anymore, we are two households now; well actually, we are FOUR households now, with several other peripheral households to consider in the mix as well. Yes, most of this happens in all families eventually, but when there are divorced/remarried/blended families in the mix, it really becomes a minefield of who gets what and when. And how everyone feels about it all. Ugh.

So, this year, after doing what I almost always do… kickingly and screamingly resisting change, I have re-doubled my effort to try and accept and find the zen in whatever my Christmas will end up looking like, and being OK with that. No guilt, no shame and maybe even some smiles.

For the first time since I divorced, I am planning not to be at home on the 24th and 25th, but rather planning to go be with my own immediate family in Arizona, people I have not seen in going on three years. Knowing full well Covid may yet have its way with that. I am panicking a little that this trip may mean I miss seeing the daughter still in contact if she can only come home during the time that I’m away, that I’ll miss my window of opportunity in her busy life. But then, that might not get to happen either so we’ll see. Or maybe she will be satisfied with just a video phone call regardless. Not the perfect thing, but surely better than nothing. These days, that is all a lot of parents get in lieu of actual visits; life is complicated. So we will see.

I will ask what my family wants for the holidays with me, and vow to let that be good enough, no matter how that looks.

I have a new partner in my life, and this will be the first holiday season we spend as a couple. We probably will not get to be together on the actual holiday now, as my plans to travel were made before we met. I don’t know yet what his family plans are with his own kids, but I am determined to roll with the punches on that too.

I will continue to adjust my idea of “family” that I see at the holidays to include those who are not related to me by blood, but by love, and will make sure to plan time with them; and to not feel like a “loser” because maybe my bio family will not be around. Being loved, is the gift, whether it comes from a blood relative or just someone who loves you because you’re you.

I will cook what I can, and enjoy, rather than stress, while doing it, and not stress about the things I don’t have time or the desire to make this time around.

I will continue to seek out unique gifts that represent the recipient in my mind, and I will continue to make things as part of that, because making them gives me joy.

I will watch all the sappy movies when I want, even if on my own.

I will use the “alone” time to dive more into the actual reason for the season, celebrating the birth of Jesus by remembering to give the extra time I have to those in my community who might need it and truly have no one at the holidays.

And mostly, I vow that I will take this season as it comes, and learn to enjoy the gifts it sometimes gives in odd wrappings (to quote my fellow blogger Dr. Jen).

In the words of my holiday hero, the great original Christmas spirit, Clark Griswold:

“We’re gonna press on, and we’re gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny fucking Kaye. And when Santa squeezes his fat white ass down that chimney tonight, he’s gonna find the jolliest bunch of assholes this side of the nuthouse.”

Cheers y’all, and may this season coming truly bring you joy, peace and love. However that is going to look. Because, that’s kind of the original point anyway. Christmas is love. Of ourselves as we are, as much as for those around us.

You can also read some of Deb’s previous posts: “Thanks, Grinch of 2020?“, “Dear Me” and “Sitting With the Magic”.

Deb P.

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  1. […] really matter to me, I’ve decided to go all in this holiday season. Deb wrote very well about a Rockwell Christmas, and though our family has mostly only been the 3 or 5 of us on Christmas morning, I related to a […]

  2. Vicki Stewart says:

    I think all women will relate to the stressed out Pussycat in this story. Trying to make everything perfect is an impossible and thankless job. It’s funny, I just wrote my annual Christmas letter that I’ve been doing for 30 years. I hardly have any family left to send it to. Like your story this year was mostly re-telling the memories of Christmas past. I think I’ll just send it to friends this year because my remaining family usually gets mad at what I say about them anyway. You are not alone in how you feel about Christmas Deb!

Hi, I'm Stacey.
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Willowjak Blog 

My blog started as a way to document my journey to wellness, but turned into a place to be inspired by others through our collective messy & authentic stories. We chat about themes that are often ignored and voices that aren't often given a chance at the mic. Now it's my favourite place to be. 

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