I am writing 100 How-To essays. It is a big project. Here is why I am doing it. This is essay 22 of 100.
If you know me at all, this definitely will or will not come as a shock to you: I am easily seduced by the holidays.
In the beginning, I kept various countdowns in my diary: days until winter break; days until Christmas; days until the Alpenrose Christmas Village; etc. Since you asked, the Alpenrose Christmas Village was (and still is) a terrific display of every Christmas cliche known to man, all hosted by the Alpenrose Dairy Farm in Oregon. It had a room full of crotchety men and their model trains, which teetered along the ceilings and into papier-mâché tunnels. There was a barn with chickens and goats grazing through fake snow. I want to list for you every thing that the Christmas Village entailed in one paragraph, but I’m afraid that it will bore you and make you leave, so I’ll make the list optional and put it at the end.*
I aged. My peers unlearned Christmas; it is, after all, a (1) flagrant and unnerving performance of capitalist excess; and (2) a Christian holiday, excluding billions of people who were raised inside different religious, spiritual, or nonreligious structures. I congratulate my peers. Good job, peers! I, however, doubled down on loving Christmas. I tried to impose it on my (mostly innocent) boyfriends. I remember making an impossible list for whomever I was dating during my freshman year of college. We were going to erect a gingerbread house; host a cookie decorating party; sing Christmas carols around the piano; decorate with mistletoe; make snowflakes with folded up computer paper; find snow; drink vegan eggnog; go to the Alpenrose Christmas village (see above; also below). There were more things, but I am embarrassed about how many there were. And each of these on a physical list with an actual square next to it, which I intended to actually check off.
I aged more. It was no longer cool for my peers to have an opinion about Christmas. It was so old and boring to be against it; I mean, OBVIOUSLY we were all against it. Christmas was like Hummers and “Duck Dynasty.” But I didn’t let go. When the weather got cold, I immediately started baking butter cookies, decorating trees, practicing the piano chords to “All I Want for Christmas is You,” watching every Hallmark holiday movie I could find on the internet. I don’t want to tell you how old I was when this stubborn yuletide spirit was at its height. I’ll tell you only this: it was last year.
My parents are really into Christmas. My memories are all tinsel and listening to the Lite Rock station where they play only Christmas music starting November first. My mom made specifically inappropriate jokes. My dad did Dad Things on Christmas: he grunted when he put up the tree and he spent a Saturday grunting while putting up the lights. For the most part, my dad is not a big Dad Things type of dad, so I think there was something novel about this behavior that appealed to me. My sister and I sang songs at the piano; we had a lot of Christmas music books accumulated from years of taking lessons from a vaguely Christian piano teacher.
My family isn’t Christian. My mom is a typically lapsed Catholic. (I’m not sure she’d agree with that description; she still has some steadfast allegiance to the Catholic Church, but she’s stopped going.) My dad is an outspoken atheist. I’m not sure why Christmas so brings out the Norman Rockwell in them — but, let’s all admit, the season does that to a lot of people. I think that in December it is so dark and the weather is so cold and everything seems so terrible that we want something to cling to; we need a cultural excuse to eat our feelings .
I’m not going to speak for the rest of my family, but I’ll say this about myself: My thirst for Christmas stuff correlates directly with the intensity of my sadness. The Christmases when I’ve wanted to drive up to the mountains to try to spot a reindeer or whatever are the same Decembers where I’ve felt deep loss and emptiness; a need to be loved and a fear of being loved, both. I get depressed and introverted in the winter (sound familiar?), and I don’t do a great job of dealing with those feelings. In fact, I want to push them away as far and as fast as I can. The peppermint-eggnog-pine trees and brightly lit dioramas are a perfect distraction. They’re so flashy and flavored and loud that it almost seems like their tendency to distract is on purpose.
OK, yes, it’s obvious: Christmas exists solely to keep the working American public from killing themselves during the darkest time of the year. It’s actually pretty genius: Keep the working workers distracted by getting them to BUY MORE STUFF. Capitalism thrives again! (Oooh, OK peers from high school. I get it now.)
I don’t actually have a ton of great memories about Christmas. I have a lot of great fake-memories. Fake-memories are memories that you build by watching too much TV, and you think they’re your real life, but actually, they’re TV. The year I made the check list was stressful and too crowded. I remember mostly how sick I got eating bits of melted chocolate off the gingerbread house when I was stressed out that it wouldn’t stick together.
My happiest holiday memories are accidental: I love walking around with nice people and looking at other peoples’ lights. (I love judging them. We do a one-to-ten ranking and then argue about why we’ve chosen these marks.) I love when I happen to be at the piano and Alexis happens to wander in and we happen to sing “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” (Once, my grandpa started to sing in his deep baritone from the arm chair in the other room. We thought he’d been reading something academic. He got really into it.)
This year, my sister asked if we could go to Hawaii instead of doing Christmas. She’s not super into holidays anymore, and she didn’t want the excessive Portland Christmas we continue to construct. When she texted me that she wanted to forego it, my heart sank. I won’t pretend I’m not still pretending that Christmas will fix this time of year.
I’m wondering what will happen if I let myself be present without trying to harness or control anything about this holiday. It seems like it will be hard for me. I love to have control over my experiences; I love to be the person holding the reins. (That was a Santa reference!)
And yet. Controlling experiences is not the same as controlling emotions. Throwing big parties and making elaborate displays has never made me any happier. It is possible that I am not supposed to be particularly happy this time of year. I think I would gladly settle for “OK.” I would like to be able to check in with myself in December and be like, “Yeah, I’m doing OK right now. I’m not stressed out; I’m not wishing that things were different than they are; I’m satisfied with this moment.” And that might mean letting go a little of the fantasy about Christmas I’ve stubbornly kept alive year after year after year.
Plus, I mean, I’m not going to complain about going to Hawaii. I get that this is a vastly privileged and unusual position to be in for a person hoping to wean herself off Christmas.
But if you can’t go to Hawaii, consider what would happen if you allowed yourself to stay Right Here. Not physically, exactly; just here without the bells and whistles, here in the darkness, here in the cold, here in your body, just as it is.
*More good stuff at the Alpenrose Christmas Village:
An old opera house transformed into a single-screen theater for holiday classic movies. You know, like, the claymation ones.
Kids dressed like elves who passed out little candy canes with bells on them. Maybe they weren’t kids. I remember them as kids, but child labor laws weren't something I was aware of when I went.
Dioramas your could peek into that revealed such secret locations as Santa’s workshop, and Mrs. Claus’ bedroom. Not sure why she had her own bedroom. The implication, based on props, was that it was so she could knit in peace.
A horse and a real “sleigh,” in quotation marks because there was never any actual snow, so they must have rigged something with wheels.
A gift shop with all kinds of peppermint artifacts, nutcrackers, holly, and knick-knacks that smelled like pine wood.
A doll museum. This wasn’t technically part of the Christmas Village, but Alpenrose Dairy Farm does have a doll museum, and if you get bored with the Christmas stuff, you can wander over there by yourself and get pretty freaked out by all the wide-eyed dolls that never blink and follow you with their creepy collective gaze.