It’s likely this all sounds very selfish. And in some ways, it is. When you’re prone to holiday depression, though, the next few weeks are often distilled to basic survival.
I don’t remember exactly when I started to hate Christmas; I know it wasn’t always that way. My parents’ divorce was a contributing factor: my father’s melancholy during holidays spent apart ever more obvious and guilt-inducing, my mother’s hysteria over cinnamon rolls and house decorations that intensified over the month of December.
And then I became an adult. I realized I was an atheist. I had no money in my savings account with which to buy presents. I had no address book to help me send cheap paper cards. By my mid-20s, I looked on the calendar toward Christmas with dread, on guard for my depression and drinking to spike, ready to hibernate as far from a mall or a church as I could possibly get. Every major death in my family, including my father’s in 2012, occurred between November and January. Naturally, the one half-hearted suicide attempt I made at age 26 happened at Christmastime, and that dismal and humiliating memory has now been added to my holiday misanthropy.
And this year. This year. The garbage fire of 2016 that took Alan Rickman (yes, he’s the one I mourn the most of all the celebrity deaths) and culminated in Donald Trump’s devastating power grab makes this holiday season feel like a deflated Santa on the lawn of some Gothic Griswold parody.
My husband and I are also in the process of putting a long, grueling semester to bed. Physically and existentially, we are tired. So, so tired.
Three years ago, when I was too pregnant for plane travel, we had our first and last Christmas just the two of us before our daughter was born in January. It was easily the most peaceful Christmas I’ve ever had—sober, expectant, full of appreciation for the last days of my pre-parenthood life with Jason. Despite my initial grinchiness, I even loved having our own Christmas tree, pine needles on the floor and all. And because it was doctor’s orders that mandated our staying put, we enjoyed every minute of it guilt-free.
A few weeks ago, we still had plans to fly to my in-laws’ in Alabama for Christmas, but the new house they’re building won’t be finished in time. With that option off the table, and my own family not expecting us, we’ve decided to stay home again, this time with our daughter, who is just old enough now to loosely grasp the concept of a holiday (it has been Halloween in our house since September, but this has worked out fine with repeated viewings of The Nightmare Before Christmas). Since making this call shortly after Thanksgiving, the relief in our house has been palpable.
No dangerous, snowy road trips.
No political discord at the dinner table.
What we will have is our own apartment-sized tree, Boston’s Winter Wonderland, the Gay Men’s Chorus on Christmas Eve, braised oxtails on Christmas Day, and as many viewings of a Charlie Brown Christmas as I damn well please. We will visit with friends in the area that work and life too often keep us from seeing. We will use my annual misanthropy to run away from social media a little bit, and escape this newly perilous world by reading for pleasure every single day. In fact, that’s the theme of our 2016 Christmas: Pleasure.
But what about family traditions? When you have lost as many family members as I have in a short span of time, traditions often die with them. And so it has been in my family—my grandparents’ cottage, which once acted as a holiday home base, has been sold. People have joined new churches (or, in my case, left church altogether). The emotional tolls of so much loss have sent us all searching for individual succor. My daughter’s birth has revived my latent desire for tradition, but I want those traditions to grow from our own undiminished place in this world—our interests, our values, even our own wonderful city. Boston is where my daughter lives, not the upstate New York town where I grew up, or the rural town in Alabama where my husband did.
This is true of many Millennial families. When my husband and I graduated from our MFA program in 2008, we entered a brutal recessionary job market that necessitated moving for work four times over the next six years—Alabama, New York, Wisconsin, and now Massachusetts. At times, we were geographically close to our extended families, but never both at once, and just as often, we were far-flung from everyone. In a very real way, the only home we know now is the one we have with each other.
I’m not saying we’ll never embrace the prodigal return to roots at the holidays again. I’m saying that I want to return when I know exactly what we can bring with us from whatever we make on our own. When I know what we can do to make the holidays happy and fulfilling for ourselves, and especially for our child. It can be hard to figure out your priorities in the din of competing visions.
It’s likely this all sounds very selfish. And in some ways, it is. When you’re prone to holiday depression, though, the next few weeks are often distilled to basic survival. As a parent, that’s not what I want to create for my child. I don’t want to be clinging to my last shreds of sanity during what’s likely to be the first Christmas of her enduring memory. I want to place her at the very center of the whole thing. I want our Christmas to reflect—no, magnify—what makes her feel happy and safe and loved. I want her to look forward to doing it all again next year.
Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.