Christmas was once filled with activity—uncles and aunts, cousins, grandparents, moms and dads, all wrapping last-minute gifts in guest bedrooms, cooking Christmas dinner and prepping desserts, straightening Christmas decorations, gossiping over sweet tea, fussing at the kids to settle down (and “get off the roof of that car!” I so fondly recall one year).
The bustle lasted all day Christmas Eve, until Mama, my grandmother, finished her cooking and announced that Christmas Supper was ready. And at this matriarch’s call, a kitchen built to accommodate six people filled with twenty.
My mom and I would make our way through the kitchen line for food every year, and every year when we’d pass the candied yams, I’d comment on how much I hated them. She’d remind me that I didn’t, and I’d end up eating nearly a plate full. I still say I hate them to this day, though I haven’t had them in years—I maintain my taste buds have changed.
I look back at pictures of those times now—pictures of kids stacked around the Christmas tree, posing for that agonizing last-minute picture before we could get to our presents, and the pictures hint to how terrible we were: rabbit ears behind one another’s heads, funny faces, awkward poses. Clearly, a menacing bunch.
These were cozy times filled with food and unfettered, carefree happiness; school was out, family was around, and the play was unending. When I was young, I figured times like these would last forever.
Things change. As the kids grew up, we also grew out. We went to college and moved away. We’d come back for Christmas, of course, but it wasn’t like before. It was a strange period when the kids were no longer kids, but weren’t ready to have their own. And when they married, they spent “split Christmases” with each side of their newly formed families, and we saw less and less of them. Their focus turned to their immediate families, and our holidays began to contract.
My grandmother’s death was the breaking point. She, the matriarch and the bedrock, she who held our extended family together, was gone, and with her went our sense of a “Family Holiday.”
I spend my Christmases now with the only real family I have left: my Aunt Barbara, who is my second mother, my inspiration, my everything. Every Christmas, she and I have dinner with her son and grandson, we drink with her many friends, and we reminisce over a bottle of wine about how things used to be and how things have changed. Though this sounds sad, it isn’t: a pang of loneliness every year, yes, but a gratefulness for have what we now.
You feel this pang as well, I’m guessing. It’s not abnormal this time of year to wallow in nostalgia, to remember the days when the holidays came without a sense of loneliness,to remember the era of “everybody”—the time of your life when you were young enough to see everyone you knew in a single room.
Holidays in adulthood are haunted. These hauntings we call “memories”—hauntings that our hearts necessitate, treasure, and desire: a blend of longing for what once was and an underlined adoration for what is now.
What then do we do when the holidays bring to us this contorted duo of happiness and longing? Do we endeavor to replicate the feelings from then? Or do we suck it up, push through the holidays with the linger of the “good ol’ days,” and make memories anew?
I say none of the above. I say we embrace our longing for yesteryear rather than ignore it. I say we cry over what (and whom) we’ve lost while we’re around the people whom we love. We thus exhaust our grievances with those whom we share the strongest solidarity to become closer, and to free our minds with the knowledge that we aren’t alone. This act, you’ll see, will open the door to a newer, more mature, more wonderful holiday than you’d ever expect.
Don’t push out the longing that comes with the holidays. Remember to leave room for ghosts.