Listening to all the Christmas songs that were impossible to escape on the radio this past month, I realized something for the first time in my 26 years: about 95 percent of holiday songs focus on home. “Baby please come home,” “I’ll be home for Christmas,” “There’s no place like home for the holidays,” yada, yada yada. But what happens when there’s no longer a home to return to? How do you deal with that, during a holiday that is supposed to serve as a magnet for families to reunite?
The rented roof over my head is a sanctuary for me and my ginger tabby cat, Annie (who was a Christmas present from a friend two years ago). And about 30 minutes away from my rental, the brick twin-home where I spent my entire childhood still stands. My parents still live in it. But over the past two years, the walls and people inside them have continually become more foreign to me.
Physical and mental illness have turned the mother I grew up with into someone more unpredictable than a roulette wheel. When I return for a visit, acid reflux, rather than a sense of familiarity and peace, tends to be the main feeling I experience. However, it’s more painful to see the ways that the unhappiness and unhealthiness have taken a toll on my father, who never gets an opportunity to jump off my mother’s roller coaster.
For years, I felt that as their only child, it was my responsibility to drag my parents, kicking and screaming, towards happiness. But two years ago, after hitting my own breaking point, I made the conscious decision to stop trying. Doing this required setting new, healthier boundaries that pushed me to figure out new ways to approach many different situations and relationships — including the holiday season.
Last year marked the first holiday season in 25 years that I spent without my parents. Though the logical part of me knew that I was better off spending Christmas away from two people who were completely miserable, the emotional side felt my heart strings tighten with every mention of family during the month of December. Truthfully, the entire ordeal felt as if I was wearing a new sweater that wasn’t yet worn in.
But spending the holiday with friends who were full of cheer, watching television and eating cheese, was a much more enjoyable alternative to spending the entire day eyeing up my parents, bracing for the first lick of conflict.
Now I’m on year two of trying to figure out how to celebrate the holidays in meaningful way on my own. Knowing the holiday season is a sensitive time, I spent many of my weekly therapy sessions in the months leading up to the holidays prepping with my therapist, Dr. R.
I have also been working on trying out new holiday traditions that will help me celebrate the day in a way that feels good — traditions that remind me of the best parts of past holidays, without all the pain I’ve experienced celebrating them with my family in recent years.
1. A (Tiny) Christmas Tree
Living in a shared four-story house makes decorating a challenge. But last year, I found a three-foot solution in an artificial pre-lit tree that perfectly fits on a chest of drawers. Throughout the month, the first thing I do after returning from a long work day is plug in the tree. Laying in bed with just the lights from the tree reminds me of all the hours that were spent during my childhood staring up at the multicolored lights of our large Christmas tree — something I haven’t done since elementary school.
2. Old Christmas Specials
There’s something really, well, special about watching holiday specials that have been airing on a yearly basis for the past five decades. Like many millennials, I don’t have cable, but I pick up major networks with a multi-directional antenna. This has allowed me to spend many evenings over the past month with some sort of festive show playing in the background while I’m working on my laptop.
When It’s a Wonderful Life aired earlier in December, I made a special night out of it, picking up a pint of spice egg nog and spending the evening writing out Christmas cards while watching George Bailey get a reality check from Clarence. As a little girl, I always fell asleep at the very end of that movie while still at my grandparents home on Christmas Eve. As an adult, I can stay awake throughout the whole movie, but the warm and fuzzy feeling still surfaces every time Suz-Suz does the whole ‘teacher says…’ bit.
3. Seeing Christmas Through A Child’s Eyes
One of the greatest things about being an aunt is watching my niece experience things for the first time. Over the past six years, she has reminded me of the thrill of a water slide, the victory of landing the best swing on the playground, and most of all, the excitement kids can have over everything that has to do with Christmas.
4. Taking Time Out
The days of a week-long winter break have become a distant memory since I began working full-time a few years ago. This year, however, I’ve decided to reinstate a break as an act of self-care. Remember how refreshed and eager you used to be when it was time to return to school for the second part of the year? This time away will be an opportunity to unplug from the daily grind of office life, and to reflect on the past year.
Spending time working on my personal writing, window shopping, and waking up without an alarm may seem like small things, but they’re things that I never get to do during the rest of the year without being conscious of the to-do list floating around in the back of my mind. Taking a little time off will let me recapture some of that anticipation for the new year that I once felt — I think returning to work well-rested and able to tackle projects with a fresh perspective is a solid way to start 2016 off in a positive direction.
5. Making Plans With The Same People I Spend The Rest Of The Year With
This may sound like a no-brainer, but the company you keep during this time of year will be the deciding factor regarding whether you’ll have a hellish or happy holiday season. And honestly, this holds true for the rest of the year, as well. Once again, I’ve made the decision to spend the Christmas Eve and Christmas day with my friend and her family.
Throughout the year, I celebrate birthdays, share meals and see this family regularly because they are fun, positive people that make me feel comfortable about being myself around them. And so, I choose to celebrate this day with them, too. Just because the calendar says it is a particular day that is supposedly reserved for spending time with family, it does not mean that we must go against every boundary we have in place the other 364 days a year, just to share a tense meal with people who happen to share strands of your DNA.
This doesn’t mean that a tiny part of my heart doesn’t hold onto the fantasy that I would be going back to my parent’s house this week, snapping photos similar to the ones from the past that I’ve been reflecting on. Or that my muscles don’t tense immediately when people talk about their plans for the holiday, because I know that I’ll be asked about mine. But knowing that I can celebrate at my friend’s house, which will allow me to be around people who are calm, positive and supportive year-round, is a gift of self-care for myself.
The holiday season has certainly taken on a new meaning that I had never anticipated. There have been nights where I’ve shed tears over missed memories and my longing to go back to a home that once was comforting. But that is not a reason to stop trying to find new ways and new traditions to define my own holiday season. Because acting like a Grinch and wallowing in self pity would only mean that history would be repeating itself — and that’s a crappy legacy that I’m refusing to continue.
Maybe the greatest gift that I could ever receive is the life lesson that the real home is somewhere within me — and it is something that no one can ever take away from me.