Today is the winter solstice.

Christmas is in four days.

My main goal right now is to not be a horrible person out loud.

Here in New Hampshire, the path of daylight is like a roller coaster ride that only goes down the big drops or up the big hills. We lose (or gain) up to fifteen minutes of daylight a week from solstice to solstice. When it’s decreasing, it begins to noticeably affect me around the middle of November.

At first it starts just as a vague discomfort, like wearing a cute pair of shoes I always forget will start to pinch after a couple hours. Then the symptoms increase, in no particular order. They include varying degrees of sleepiness, brain fog, insomnia, distractibility, irritability usually triggered by being interrupted (due to) trouble thinking linearly and organizing my thoughts/habits/tasks. I have lingering obsessive thought loops, frequently about why don’t we hibernate like other more evolved creatures.

Did you know that in addition to bears, skunks, bees, bats, and groundhogs also hibernate?

BUT I DIGRESS. Along with my happy lightbulbs, I benefit from St. John’s wort, gazillions of IU’s of Vitamin D, certain prescribed pharmaceuticals, and my personal hat trick of exercising at dusk. I also use a sunlight alarm clock which works on a dimmer, so it simulates sunrise at whatever time my little heart desires and tricks my grizzly bear brain into thinking it is a longer day than it is.

All these things keep me out of jail and able to pass among the more functional members of society.

Some years go better than others. It’s easier if there is snow early in the season. I think the refracted brightness helps somewhat. However, this year we are having a very mild winter. Very mild. As in, Dude, Like It’s A Surf’s Up Christmas.

But just like hitting a tough hill early on in a marathon on a hot day (actually since I’m not a runner I have no idea if this is an apt metaphor or not — add “Prone to talking out of my ass” to symptom list) there is another, much more sinister factor at play that complicates my desire to stay sane. And that is the fact that I am not inclined to be…..jolly….during the holidays, and this has been the case even when I did not live in northern climes. Early onset Grinch usually begins about 4pm Thanksgiving Day, when a tense knot develops at the base of my skull in anticipation of the impending cultural consumer imperative that’s about to snap to, snarling, shaking off the mellow lumbering pace it’d assumed since Labor Day, ready to go full Defcon Hyena crazy a couple hours later, banging its scraping, grasping beast claws on the doors of any retail establishment who dared to stay closed until Friday morning. It will not be satisfied until the post-Christmas Day sales.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I strongly dislike this time of year. (emphasis due to my well-intentioned attempts not to use the H-word in our home).

I struggled for years to fight the good fight and embrace the holidays, in the spirit of making my own joy. It felt like the exercise a friend casually suggested I might try while I was attempting to learn to ski, that of smiling even when I didn’t feel like it. She said studies had shown smiling relaxes us in stressful situations. I did smile, but instead of letting go and leaning into the experience, appreciating the beautiful scenery and the fresh mountain air, taking a whatever stance toward the possibility of falling, or worse, getting mowed over by the many, many kamikaze skiers cutting across my ski tips, I instead found myself obsessively wanting to take off one of my skis, and impale her with it.

I’ve muscled through decades of Christmases hoping good feelings would follow right actions. Refusing to give in to negativity. Perhaps you have correctly guessed by now that I have truly awful memories of celebrating Christmas as a kid, which we didn’t do until I was 11, an experience into which I felt shoved after my father’s remarriage. It was a strictly choreographed event wedded to the script of my stepparent’s fantasy. I felt like an actor in someone else’s show. I’d be immediately demoted to understudy on the occasions my new Christian cousins were there, the lion’s share of gifts, attention, etc. going to them. Yet I was somehow required to believe in Santa, leaving cookies for him, talking about him, writing letters to him about stuff I wanted for Christmas…which was difficult for me since I already knew the idea of Santa was a fiction. And I never received anything on the list. We did all of the decorating, gingerbread house-making, the big meal on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, even though I had listened to my father for years sharply criticize any Jewish family in our neighborhood who even remotely sidled up to Christmas, or did anything as false as putting up blue lights outside or getting a “Hanukkah bush”.

Plus we had just returned from living in Israel for a year, which was the happiest experience of my young life. As you can imagine, Christmas is not the same in Israel. Ironically, it’s about the birth of Jesus. It was very piously and quietly observed there by Christians (and by Eastern Orthodox Christians in January). Living in a country that observed Jewish holidays nationally to this day remains one of the most empowering experiences I have ever had as a secular Jew.

So, after years and years of gearing up for the holidays as an adult, I feel like it’s still a response to an internal falseness, a forced loyalty to some way of being that just isn’t true for me. I feel like I’ve spent a lifetime trying to compensate for my history, to proactively recreate a better experience, to strive not be a victim, etc., etc., and I have often thought that the amount of effort it takes to do this somehow gives the trauma more power, not less. I did truly enjoy celebrating my husband’s version of Christmas, for a couple of years, and I did embrace his joy, but I have to say at this point I really think Christmas for me, is best categorized as “just not my thing”. Like what you would say after trying to work up the passion for kissing a girl if you like boys, or for kissing boys if you like girls, or for trying to kiss only one if you can’t choose….you get the picture.

Maybe I just don’t like being told what to do. Because make no mistake, there are specific rules about how to celebrate Christmas in our culture, and the ante gets upped every year. Think I exaggerate? Try not doing some of it. I just last week received a text from a dear friend that read, “I think the holidays are stressing me out. Caroling party tonight. Surprise party for hubby tomorrow night (his birthday is December 26th so they have that whole additional pressure of keeping it separate and special). Finish shopping. Send Xmas cards. Plan Christmas Day dinner. And WORK. Also, get things ready for the family visit.” She’s talking about that classic holiday double-bind: you either take on the stress of launching a big, proper production of a holiday, or you deal with the corresponding guilt if you can’t summon the enthusiasm to do it all, the tree, lights, festivities, parties, cards, fabulous presents, etc. etc. etc.

I also strongly dislike the way our culture sets Christmas up as such a special day, so sacrosanct, such an ideal, that it effectively ends up being one gigantic cop-out. Do we really think that if we embrace magic, compassion, generosity, and kindness for this one day, we will be reminded sufficiently to behave as a decent person on all the other days? Which really makes no sense to me since behaving as a decent human being has literally nothing to do with buying stuff or cutting down trees.

And I strongly dislike the super-sized amount of hostage-taking there is at this time of year. If you are not Christian, or generally not into consumer culture, or are having a tough time for any of the other non-daylight-shortage-related reasons, you must explain yourself:

“Don’t get me wrong, I think that there is great comfort in rituals and traditions”, or

“I have nothing against Christmas per se”, or

“I know many people love Christmas because it brings a lot of levity to a dark time of year”, or

(my version)“Maybe I’m just a weirdo”.

Actually that could be a plausible explanation for my problem because my favorite holiday is Valentine’s Day. And listen, I’ve paid enough attention to the reactions people have when I reveal that little factoid to know how crazy I’m supposed to be. Only freaks like me really go for it on Valentine’s Day, having always loved it independently of their relationship status. I’ve adored it since I was a kid. I’ve carried a flame for it single, married, coupled, uncoupled.

Ironically, this holiday season, by virtue of my Grieving Widow classification, a miracle has occurred. A most amazing Christmas miracle in fact. Turns out, Grieving Widows get a pass on celebrating their first Christmas ALL ALONE.

I’m actually expected to be miserable and struggling during the holidays. Which means…wait for it…

…I do not have to pretend I’m enjoying myself!


Now, I am sensitive to the subtle nuances at work here. People have asked me somberly how I’m doing, this being my first holiday season ALL ALONE, reminding me of course that the first year is the HARDEST, and I have gotten very good at calmly thanking them for asking, while on the inside I’m doing a little happy dance and trying not to burst out giggling, while chirping, “Are you fing kidding me? This is going to be the best Christmas ever!!”.

I mean maybe it’s just me and my light-deprived brain talking, but this doesn’t sound like something I should say out loud. In public. There’s possibly some room for misinterpretation is what I’m thinking.

But talk about blessings beyond measure! I now have permission to freely admit how crappy I feel, how confused and brain-fogged and grinchy and grouchy…and guess what? It sucked the power right out of my misery. Once the energy required to resist the holidays was no longer needed, once I didn’t have to pretend I wasn’t in possession of the most pitch-black heart to beat in the chest of any Scroogey McScroogerson ever, I started noticing a few things. Most importantly, I noticed that although some days would always be tougher than others this time of year, there wasn’t any day in which it was awful all day long.

There were always beautiful and touching and funny moments that highlighted themselves by the end of the day, if I chose to look.

And — brace yourself — I also noticed that there happened to be a few Christmas-y things I do enjoy, now that I am free to choose for myself: the snowflake lights that hang in our front windows — very pretty. My town also puts luminaria up and down several main streets on Christmas Eve that are just gorgeous. Watching Elf never ever fails to disappoint. I found online gifts for family and friends in California that you can send along with an audio message. We were in hysterics recording them. And then there is my renowned peppermint bark, which I actually had the energy to make since I wasn’t exhausted and cranky trying to pass for being Very Spiritually Evolved Through This Trying Time.

We also put up our beautiful “tree” crafted from reclaimed wood made by a neighbor. But 11 and especially 13, like a green tree, so I asked for help and a dear friend found a small tree — a baby evergreen in a pot — and brought it to us because she knows the thought of a cut, dying tree gasping for breath in my house gives me hives. 13 looked at it and said, “That’ll work”, and smiled.

I look at it and am struck daily by perhaps the biggest miracle of all: in what is supposed to be a season of loss, I am being gifted with a gigantic do-over where this holiday is concerned.

About two weeks after my husband died, 11 and 13 asked me if “we were just Jewish now”. It led to a frank discussion about the holiday and it turns out even my kids hated (sorry, strongly disliked) some parts of Christmases Past. Particularly, Christmas dinner, which was my husband’s favorite part. Except last year, he was so sick and I was so tired, that I lobbied for Jewish Christmas for the first time in twenty years together. Jewish Christmas, as you might know, is a very holy tradition modern Jews hold close to their hearts: Chinese food and the movies.

My children, bless them, declared last year’s Jewish Christmas the best Christmas ever. And such is the power of a good Chinese meal and a film: they didn’t complain once about the Sony hack and how they couldn’t use their new Playstation.

So. I stand before you exposed, my secrets are out, and we are going to have a Christmas free from all pressures for it to be anything more than it actually is. It could end up to be A Very Meh Christmas. It could be The Christmas That Sucked The Big Lemon, Charlie Brown. One thing it will be no matter what, is the first Christmas my children will celebrate without their father. Who loved Christmas. We will most likely laugh and cry in equal measure throughout the day. But there will be dear friends, Mushu Pork, and the movies, maybe even Star Wars if there are any tickets left. (Okay, that kind of miracle maybe not). Of course we plan on being in our pajamas for most of this.

And I will mark my gratitude in increments of one or two or three extra minutes of light gained daily, until I emerge perky and back to feeling as much like myself as I can, on Groundhog Day.

Tobe completely honest, I do have one precious Christmas memory. When my kids were small, maybe 1 and 3, they woke up Christmas morning to find their stockings in their room. This is the custom my husband grew up with, that you would hang your stocking downstairs and Santa would fill it and leave it for you by your bed. So magical to feel he had been that close, in your room! And you’d slept right through it!

That Christmas morning we woke up to the sound of them in the next room, as they discovered their stockings and started to go through them. We could hear them exclaiming over every little toy or trinket or chocolate, the candy, socks, Pez dispensers…going over each item thoroughly, showing each other what they’d got that was the same or different, absolutely delighting in how full the stocking was. Santa had come!! And look at the bounty he had brought! They were really amazed and took their time, relishing every detail.

Listening, it dawned on us that they thought this was it — that these were all the Christmas presents! They had no idea that the stockings were just the “little” things and that the main event was waiting for them downstairs.

God, they were so joyful! To this very day, I can remember how their thrilled little voices got louder, more boisterous, and were just…replete with happiness. They could not get over how generous Santa was…. just from stockings we’d assumed were only full of “stuffers”.

They came running in to show us.

And wondered why Mommy was crying.

Small tree. But a big deal.

Back to all posts