On Christmas Eve, I found myself trudging through the leftover blizzard snow, heaped into underwhelming, dirty slush piles at the edge of each sidewalk, while simultaneously admiring the holiday décor that adorned the ornate, brownstone houses in Back Bay, Boston. Marveling at the classic green and red wreaths hanging neatly alongside the cheerful, sparkling lights, I felt heavy, imagining those beyond the ornate brick walls. I wondered if they were happy.
Ordinarily, the holiday season brings with it a deeply entrenched façade, characterized by uplifting carols, scrumptious desserts, generous gift exchanges, serendipitous romance, and profound magic. Behind this disguise, however, lies a more troubling reality: the deepest cognizance of shattering loneliness, financial hardship, relationship struggles, and incomprehensible loss. While these two divergent paradigms are certainly not mutually exclusive, we too often treat them as such, neatly packing away our discomfort into organized drawers, which are only to be reopened following the festivities.
Naturally, the 2020 holiday season has proven to be as unique and challenging as the many months that prefaced it. Christmas Eve Mass was largely held virtually, stockings were stuffed with face coverings as opposed to underwear, and Christmas dinners were orchestrated in garages. Given the trying year we’ve collectively witnessed, the holiday season was seemingly mandated to be merrier and brighter than ever before, with unprecedented Christmas tree sales and an online shopping frenzy serving as the impetus behind the USPS gridlock. While I admire the resilience and adaptability of humankind, this very innocuous veneer has left me intrigued.
For as long as I can remember, I have been transfixed by the “holi-daze,” romanticizing everything about the holiday season. My childhood home was always perfectly ornamented for the holidays, with aromas of snickerdoodles and peppermint wafting through the air, and the Christmas tree standing tall in the family room, always nurturing bountiful gifts beneath it. Within its walls, however, there is an abundance of baggage and imperfection, which a stranger’s eye would never recognize. Even I, both allured and mislead by the “holi-daze,” found myself disappointed following every holiday celebration, yet strangely drawn back by the false promises Christmas held. Such emotional trauma coupled with the uniqueness of this year encouraged me to spend the holiday season away from my biological family for the very first time.
Having spent Christmas alone, I discovered the distinction between loneliness and solitude. While loneliness signals a negative emotion marked by a sense of isolation, solitude describes the state of being alone and providing oneself with wonderful and sufficient company. Embracing solitude, I found myself lost in a new book, watching a sappy movie, sipping on sparkling rosé, and indulging in the delicacy of bread and butter (a staple).
While this holiday certainly did not resemble the annual traditions that I’m accustomed to, I was grateful to have been allowed the opportunity to pause and reflect: Why do I continuously return to a place that inflicts such pain? I was not the only person practicing such self-introspection this year. Given the pandemic’s restrictions, many were relieved to no longer bear the burden of hosting a large gathering or exhaled deeply at the thought of not having to face the exasperating small talk with a particular in-law. I wonder if COVID-19 will merely provide a temporary reprieve from these annual stressors, or if it will mark the start of new, healthier practices. If we go to such lengths to protect ourselves from a virus for the sake of our physical health, why wouldn’t we do the same for the sake of our mental health?
As I speak more openly of my complicated relationship with the holidays, most are initially stunned given the picturesque front I’ve always painted of the season. Following the inceptive surprise, however, I am met with similar confessions surrounding the many aches and pains that these times bring forth. Throughout such vulnerable conversations, I find solace. Looking beyond the quintessential décor and company, there is discomfort, pain, loss and sheer imperfection inside the walls of every house, regardless of how seamless they may appear. The common trials and tribulations do not make us abnormal or unworthy; they make us human. I discovered that burying such faults simply to propagate an ideal holiday season is a disservice not only to everyone around me, but also to myself, as continuously painting a certain picture to erase the existing reality has only deluded me to return to the same place I attempt to disguise.
Having spent countless years merely attempting to survive the holidays, I have now opted to live them. Given the lesson this year has bestowed upon us surrounding the brevity of life, I only hope that others will find the courage to do the same.