In my experience, Christmas was a depressing time. It did not start 15 years ago after my mother died or even 25 years ago after my father died. It was nothing as specific as an empty seat at Christmas lunch or any particular adverse childhood experience.
When I was seventeen, I found himself in Maynard Mall in Wynberg to do Christmas gift shopping. A shop assistant asked me, “Why do you look so sad?” If I tried to answer the question, I could probably come up with a few suggestions.
Perhaps it started with the conflict that was provoked by the religious nature of the season. The religion of my childhood and youth, taught me that I was in the world but not of the world. This meant that I was not supposed to celebrate Christmas like the rest of the world. In the absence of clear guidelines of how this was to be done, this certainly put a damper on things.
Christmas was a stressful time. It was marked by the demand to connect with people, which doesn’t come naturally to me. I mostly prefer to be alone. But Christmas is a time when I am expected to throw myself into the crowds, trying to buy the right gifts for friends and family, and, more than anything, demonstrate the joy of being with people.
Expectations were high and were often dashed. There was the pressure to buy followed by sinking regret after the purchase. I felt the world spinning out of control.
The Christmas story in itself is a sad one. A poor young pregnant woman traveling in discomfort, cannot find a place to rest. Turned away from every inn, she and her partner eventually find a place to sleep in a stable. In that stable, surrounded by farm animals, she gives birth to her first child. Soon after his birth, the little family are turned into refugees and have to flee across the border in order to escape a crazy ruler.
Today, this tragic tale is overlaid by the crass, commercial and extravagant celebration. As I shop for gifts and nice food, I am confronted by poverty – the hungry children who will not get presents, the desperate salesperson hoping to earn some commission on a last sale before the big day. In the media, I am reminded of the heartlessness of Trump’s America, oppression all over the world and injustices closer to home.
When I lost the shackles of religion, the temptation to replace Christmas with another celebration was great; the desire for clear guidelines on how an atheist should celebrate (or not) a religious holiday was intense.
I realise that a lot of my feelings around Christmas are linked to the pressure which I internalised.
But this year was different. I decided to stop worrying. What a relief that was.
I started the day by doing something simple: joining a great group of people, Running4Pads, to hand out sandwiches and sanitary pads to homeless people and refugees in the centre of Cape Town. What a great experience for the spirit.
I allowed himself to be caught up in my daughter’s enthusiasm for the holiday: fixing a homemade star to the top of the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, helping Santa to eat and drink the cookies and milk left out for him before she woke up on Christmas morning… It was exquisite to just enjoy her delight and not to worry about anyone or anything else in those moments.
Christmas lunch was simple with people who I consider to be my extended family.
Then there were the meaningful connections that I made with people. I bought less (except for my daughter who was spoilt) and received less. But I was happier with what I gave and received.
I took time off and allowed myself to embrace the cultural and social significance of the day; beyond the religious and economic trappings. Christmas is what you make it to be.