Monday, December 29, 2008

When The Holidays Aren't Ideal

by Julia Buckley
It used to bother me when my ideal image of the holidays--especially the December holidays--didn't match up to the television image. You know: the image perpetuated by endless holiday specials and glamorized commercials, where super-loving families gather (seemingly after a long and heart-wrenching absence) in a beautiful place with a light dusting of snow falling on a million dollar home. It's not the treacherous snow that makes people slide and skid into non-glamorous ditches, but the beautiful feathery sort that looks good in an actor's hair. Even the presents they carry up the holly-bedecked staircase are beautiful--gold packages tied with stiff gold ribbons, creating a subtext of wealth while on the surface everything says "normal." It's normal, these commercials cry, to ride ponies on snowy mountains in the Christmas dark; normal to give luxury automobiles as gifts; normal to serve lavish meals for thin attractive people who barely eat them; normal to drink but not become tired or surly when the booze hits bottom.

When I was in my twenties I think I took a lot of stock in those phony images. I wanted to be those people on tv because, let's face it, it looked good. But eventually real life chipped away at my illusions and made me see that the holidays are no different from any other days in the sense that messy life will intrude, and that sometimes it becomes messier than ever before. The stress of the holidays can ratchet up the normal tensions simmering under our benign countenances and cause us to blow at inopportune moments.

It started with events like the one pictured above, when my poor son realized that he didn't like the concept of Santa Claus--that image that parents so carefully cultivate for their children's pleasure. And once my children got old enough to fight with one another and talk back to their parents, I developed a complaint which has to be pulled out several times each season: "Must you two save your most repulsive behavior for the holidays?"

In their defense, though, they are deprived of the mental stimulation of school, the society of friends, the exercise of walking back and forth to the dear old school building. Instead they are subjected to a frightening sociological experiment in which they are placed in a small, warm, super-decorated house with two fairly grouchy parents who are prone to saying "Do you realize how much we do for you kids?"

Let the eye rolling begin.

It's not that the holidays don't bring joy: of course they do. But the trick is recognizing joy when it comes close, and it has nothing to do with pretty visuals (thank goodness). I think I'm getting better at recognizing the joy. Like those moments, after a day of yelling "shut up" at each other at top volume, my sons suddenly become best friends and lie in their beds with a flashlight and books, giggling together at cartoons.

Or those days when, let's face it, I feel I might die from being taken for granted--after doing all the shopping, all the wrapping, all the cleaning, much of the cooking, only to find that no one is thanking me--and someone, a boy, a husband, some family ambassador of good will--brings me eggnog or tea and says that I deserve some relaxation. (This one might still be closer to fantasy, but hey, it's happened).

Or, sometimes, it can be a nice e-mail from someone in the mystery world, like my fellow Poe daughters, that can bring me a moment of happiness.

And those are the moments that can happen any time in life. The trick to enjoying the holidays is to give much, expect little, and then enjoy everything that exceeds your expectations.

But if someone hands me one of those gold packages with a gold bow, I'm taking it.


Anonymous said...

Some of the cliches are true: "Don't sweat the small stuff" works. Or "stop and smell the roses."

As Carly Simon said, "These are the good old days." Enjoy whatever parts you can--and make sure to laugh. It helps.

Julia Buckley said...

You're so right, Sheila. :)

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Right on target, Julia--you left me wishing I'd thought of this topic first. :) Among my wonderful extended "moments" this year: three hours in my tiny kitchen making latkes with my husband in complete harmony. Those "ideal family" scenarios don't show the thirty years of working on a marriage that make such moments possible.

Sofie Kelly said...

Julia, I did get one of those gorgeous wrapped gifts. Inside there were oven mitts. Seriously. Oven mitts.

Julia Buckley said...

That's just heartbreaking, Darlene. All that buildup and then no payoff. :0

Liz, those latkes sound great--especially the part about not fighting. Share the recipe with us?

Kim Smith said...

Happy New Year PDDs!!

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Kim!

Best of luck with your writing.