Does that red-suited, creepily cheerful holiday imp visit your house each Christmas? If you have anxious little munchkins, the wacky, double-jointed sprite shows his bad self in a different spot each day. Though I’m well acquainted with this Santa tattletale, my grand- teenies just visit so the imp doesn’t do acrobatics in my house. The only mischievous Elf I’d want to see — left the building before last Christmas. Since then, he’s been sighted on shelves around the house, but now stilled in timeless frozen smiles.
Last year, there was plenty of tears, numbness and grief. A plastic smile and lots of fake cheer prevailed. This year, I’m determined not to have a ‘bah humbug’ Christmas. My Elf would HATE that. Oh, he’d definitely understand last holiday’s emotional sipher. In fact, if I WASN’T in in joyless funk so soon after he died, I suspect he’d be more than a wee bit surprised. But I also remember well his favorite retort to any conversation he thought went on longer than he wanted. “Don’t belabor the subject” he’d say. Of course, the phrase was usually uttered after my spousal unit related his views on something — but before I came close to finishing mine. (And yes, it ticked me off bigtime!)
Each person has their own timetable for grief. That ominously annoying phrase really isn’t welcome in that space. Though we might each have a loving village, we come into our healing in our own time. With the expectations of Hallmark happy, holidays don’t really help change the narrative. If anything, as all the firsts morph into the next year, and the next, you might be wondering why you feel even worse. (if that’s possible) Unless there was a second coming, your loved one hasn’t returned; nothing really has changed — except you. Each holiday comes and goes and, you sometimes you really would like your seriously deflated (I’ve fallen and I can’t get up) spirit not to ‘belabor the subject’.
Still cradling a broken heart, being a ‘bless us everyone’ Tiny Tim is a distinct challenge. You have a hall pass to be Scrooge and I get it – ‘totally’ – another husband-ism. Last year, it was anything that cheery holiday mask was anything but easy, though make-up and I are inseparable. I had my well-known tree, lights I managed to hang over the front door and a big family dinner I pulled off without a hitch. What no one guessed though is that I was just waiting to disappear into the quiet of the house when everyone left. How else could I let loose with a really loud sobbing session, tears dripping over my big Elf’s picture?
Even so, as I went with the Christmas flow last year, I somehow knew the first things I needed to switch up a few traditions, the first being the Christmas tree. That big green fir, once center stage beneath a cathedral ceiling, was relocated to the opposite side of the room. It marked the end of increasingly mammoth trees we chose to justify the tall ceiling they sat beneath. In fact, the last Christmas my husband and I spent together, we realized, as we struggled to hoist that sucker from the roof and into the house, what we bought was a colossal ‘what were we thinking’ monstrosity.
This year an artificial tree stands in the new location. I already miss the fragrant scent of fir but at least having a tree always at the ready offers an escape from the suffocating seasonal cheer of choosing a tree alongside eager families. While I was hoping to handle the tree’s elevation completely on my own, it turned out to be so much heavier than I imagined. Duh. Fortunately, my newly minted teenage grandson was happy to help (at least until it was time for basketball) My fake wannabe tree is completely dolled up and seems like at home in its new space.
Most traditions are really just memories in motion and I decided to give my own some legs. Wanting to give this Christmas some tender emotional weight, I started with some of my husband’s shirts I had judiciously saved from his now departed wardrobe. I recruited a friend with serious sewing skills to make them into toss pillows, complete with personal embroidered patches. These pillows will assure my grandkids of their grandpa’s love sewn into cozy fabrics they remember seeing him in. They will also each unwrap a very unique book this Christmas. The story of their grandpa’s life along with his crazy collectibles, I painstakingly created them to also remind each child that they were his most important treasure of all.
Another tradition will be retired this year — the annual Christmas ham. Actually, I think it outlived it’s popularity anyway but still, as all traditions, it’s hard to go cold turkey (excuse the mixed holiday pun) on tradition. I thought, why not go total Italian abbondanza? Ditching the formal meal for an overflowing buffet not only allows us to graze at will but also makes that empty chair seem less, well, empty.
Tradition dies hard. What warms us can also pain us deeply when the person we shared them with are no longer. Some things are easier to leave than others; fruitcake for example. But traditions that were sweet, memorable and cherished, ah, those are the ones we think long and hard about leaving them untouched. Compared to changes death makes to the lives it leaves behind, what is changing up holiday traditions? Who cares that my designer burgundy and green is supplanted by silver, white and navy? I gave some venerable decorations walking papers this year, stringing tiny little lights on the model sailboats already in residence instead. I had already passed the cookie-baking torch to my girls who upgraded the whole supply and the enormous pile of cards I used to pop in the mailbox – have been reassigned to email. Not personal you say? Hey, I think creatively designing them qualifies.
As you can see, I’m really trying to give this second Christmas my best shot. Don’t count on me sporting a blinking holiday sweater or listening to endless carols. (holiday carols were never my thing — unless you count Dominick the Donkey). And I won’t promise that tears won’t be shed – you just may not see them.
Maybe we can all go easier on ourselves this year. Book a massage or reservations when grief begins to overwhelm. You don’t have to accept every invitation or make excuses to sleep late, zone out or read a book; the bathroom floor can wait. Remember the sweet times and when all that sweetness overwhelms, grab a friend and take in a movie or a walk. Most of all, the best gift you can give yourself is to remember what was inside you ‘before’. Your strength, your kindness – and your laughter. In the midst of grief fog, laughter sounds unfamiliar, hollow even. It can even bring unforeseen guilt that we can dare to smile or be happy. However awkward the sound, laughter can smooth rough, torn edges and provides the healing moments so necessary to moving forward.
I may be just whistling in the winter dark or trying to fake it until I make it, but this second Christmas I’m going to try to keep my eyes and heart open. My brain has had a year to process the unthinkable. Yet, this second Christmas hit me in certain ways I was not prepared for, though my friend, who had her own ‘second’ Christmas last year had warned me. Twinkling lights can seem too glaring; merry music too blaring. But that’s what happens when fog clears.
My guy won’t offer Christmas morning to do the mashed potatoes. (Oh, that’s right – we have a different menu this year) I may still feel alone in the holiday wee hours or emptied by lack of wrapped thoughtfulness from my personal Elf beneath the tree. There will be no parroting of “It’s a wonderful Life” dialogue and no specific tenor voice singing “O Holy Night’. But no matter how many tissues it’s going to take, I’m still going to stick the landing this year.
The Christmas card I inserted above was a copy of one I made for my Elf the last Christmas we shared together. Though its weird sense of humor teased about his enormous collection of toy soldiers, it still tickled his keen sense of humor. I’d like to think that even if he doesn’t ‘watch me when I’m sleeping’ (I snore, remember?) from his perch on the shelf, HimsELF will still be chuckling or singing to himself. Even better, knowing that I made it through this last lousy year since he left, maybe he’ll be whispering ‘Merry Christmas, honey – you got this’.
Blessings, wishes for peace and hugs to all this Christmas and always.