This column appeared in The Spokesman-Review on December 5 2005, and is one of my most popular public radio audio essays. I think that's because it addresses something most of us learn sooner or later: Life, even when we wrap it in pretty paper and decorate it with bows and ribbon, isn't always pretty. CAM
“What’s wrong,” I asked, warily because I never know what’s coming.
“I don’t know,” she said with a long sigh. “Christmas just isn’t the same anymore.”
It was my turn to heave a deep sigh. There were still Thanksgiving leftovers in the refrigerator, for goodness sake. It wasn’t even December.
I offered hugs and sympathy, and gave a little pep talk about how we see things differently as we age and it’s really up to us as individuals to make any day, not just the holidays, wonderful, but what I wanted to say was, “Oh yes it is. Christmas is exactly the same.”
The truth is the picture-perfect Christmas my child was pining for never really existed. It was the magic castle at the top of a fairytale beanstalk that I planted for her.
She was blissfully unaware of the times the checkbook wouldn’t balance or I was reduced to tears over a must-have toy that couldn’t be found anywhere in town.
She didn’t worry about the tree that died weeks before Christmas and stood in the living room like ornamented kindling.
It all looked perfect to her.
In some ways the holiday season is a beautiful but empty package. We’re driven by the belief that we can create this one perfect day, or season, and the warmth generated by it will carry us through the rest of the year. We spend, bake and shop. We decorate around worry, unhappiness and dissatisfaction pretending they aren’t there.
As my daughter rested her head on my shoulder, I recalled a conversation with a friend. We met for coffee, and she told me she was getting a divorce. “The thing is, the marriage has been over a long time” she told me, slowly stirring the lukewarm coffee in her cup. “But every year I’d make this gut-wrenching decision to leave and then I’d think about the holidays, and I just couldn’t do it.”
It was bad enough to know she was ruining her children’s lives, but the holidays, too? That was too much.
Facing the truth that the divorce would tarnish every Christmas, and every other special occasion the family would celebrate in the future, she surrendered. It was that important to her.
Year after year she put on another perfect Christmas for a family that was broken but just didn’t know it.
Finally, no amount of scotch tape and silk ribbon could keep it all together. The marriage fell apart, she left – in the summer – and the family learned how to do things, how to do everything, differently.
It wasn’t pretty or perfect, and it wasn’t easy, but it eventually worked. She told me later, after she had remarried and reconciled with the child who had struggled the most with the situation, that if she hadn’t been so focused on making perfect memories for her children she might have made better decisions about a lot of things.
As I petted and consoled my daughter I tried to tell her what we so often gloss over this time of year: the truth.
Nothing shines quite as bright in real life as it does in our memory.
Growing up is hard because it means our eyes are opened to what a gift box won’t cover. We make peace with what was and what is and, eventually, move on to caring more about making the ones we love happy.
What I wanted to tell my child, but I’m not sure I got across, is that the real gift of any season is learning to find a way to see the magic in the holidays – in every day – even when you know better.