Demystified: Finding Healing in the Holidays

My roommates and I decorated our Christmas tree just after Thanksgiving. It’s a real tree, driven down by my roommate Deborah from her family’s farm in New Hampshire, though, weirdly, it doesn’t have that pine smell. We wrapped the tree in strings of colored lights (well, to be honest, my roommates did the wrapping after I draped them over my scooter and took selfies with them garlanded over my head) and all hung the respective ornaments we’d bought or brought from home. My ornaments were wrapped in brown paper—a mix of baubles I’d made as a kid and relics from my family that I remember hanging every year growing up. Unwrapping each one was like opening a gift, a surprise memory. Except.

I unwrapped each ornament carefully, with a little bit of trepidation. The last time I’d seen the ornaments was in my apartment in Brooklyn, four years ago, when they’d been packed up after the most dismal holiday season of my life. It occurred to me as I hung each random object on the tree in my cozy Boston living room that the last time I’d decorated for Christmas was a week before my husband left me. I was afraid of unwrapping some relic of that little tabletop tree that we’d had back in Brooklyn, some tiny piece of the past like a ticking bomb.

It occurred to me as I hung each random object on the tree in my cozy Boston living room that the last time I’d decorated for Christmas was a week before my husband left me.

I’d been smart, though, then, and had carefully separated my ornaments from his, from ours. The only one that made it was a little stuffed owl holding a red heart, an ornament I’d liked so much I’d kept it hanging over the door to our bedroom year-round. I put him on the tree, too, same as all the others. I was sad I hadn’t taken a paw-shaped photo frame that we’d filled with a close-up of our dog Chief’s face, looking grumpy as ever. It cracked me up every time I saw it. I guess Past Me knew that Future Me would probably have cried at seeing that ornament before she could laugh again. I’d like to think that Present Me would probably do a little bit of both.

When I was younger, I heard talk about how the holidays were hard for people, that suicide rates and break up rates and depression rates would increase. I guess I understood the logic but found it hard to really appreciate. There were presents and parties and treats and festive drinks and feel-good movies—what’s not to like? Even though I was a pretty angsty kid, the younger version of me failed to appreciate the complicated emotional nuances of being an adult during the holidays.

Well, now I’m there, and I can tell you those nuances are myriad and they are complicated. Sure, my own particular holiday neuroses were shaped by my husband leaving me two weeks before Christmas, but there’s also a whole mess of other things whipped up in there too: messy family dynamics, a history of office layoffs at this time of year, friend drama, intolerance for that certain brand of saccharine “everything is going to be okay” celebration, economic woes, and, of course, the feelings of loneliness and being “less than” caused by a society built on the foundation that if you don’t have a partner, family, and home by the time you’re 35, you’re a huge failure.

Of course, these anxieties are part of life year-round, but there’s nothing like the holidays to bring them into sharp relief—family gatherings, reunions with friends who knew you when you were fifteen, a mailbox and social media feeds full of pictures of cherubic babies and families hanging stockings, holiday parties full of couples, worries over buying gifts, having “Feliz Navidad” stuck in your head for 14 days straight. Also, I’m pretty bad at baking cookies and wrapping presents.

Of course, these anxieties are part of life year-round, but there’s nothing like the holidays to bring them into sharp relief.

Saturday night, my roommates and I had a holiday party at our apartment. Despite half of my guest list cancelling day-of due to nasty weather and/or sickness, it was still a lovely evening of light and warmth and cheer. We swapped books and drank mulled wine and I wore a sweater that says “Bah Humpug” under a picture of a pug with sparkly red reindeer antlers. It was a nice reminder of what the holidays can be, at certain moments, if you believe or squint hard enough or drink lots of wine.

If, like me, you have a rough time with the holidays, you’re not alone. I hope you can find joy in the little things (after all, cherubic babies on Santa’s lap are still cute, stripped of their social pressures) and peace in the quiet moments, and make your own traditions that give you light and warmth. If you’re not ready to unwrap those ornaments yet, they’ll be there next year, or the year after. Be patient.

This piece first appeared in Jill’s TinyLetter Early & Alone. Subscribe here

Photo by Joanna Kosinska.

Jill Gallagher is an editor and writer in Boston. Her essays have appeared in BuzzFeed, Vol 1 Brooklyn, Catapult, and the Ploughshares blog. She writes a TinyLetter about dating (and not) called Early & Alone.

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