Merry Christmas to all of you who celebrate, and happy winter to those who don’t, and happy life to those who neither celebrate Christmas or live in the Northern hemisphere! (I’m assuming it’s called summer there right now?)
Every year for Christmas, the six members of my family travel with about 500 pounds of luggage to St. Louis, Missouri to celebrate Christmas with my dad’s side of the family. That includes 9 kids under age 10 (and 5 of them are under age 5). As you can imagine, it’s something of a zoo- constant screaming, giggling, and little ones underfoot. But I could go on about that for ages.
This year, Christmas for me was absolutely lovely. I was incredibly lucky to receive a new phone (my old one was dying), lots of socks, a new cookbook, and some jewelry from my grandparents. My sisters and younger cousins had, of course, a wonderful day (most still believe in Santa Claus and with that kind of magic, Christmas is always incredible). The only person who had a blue Christmas this year was my brother Tommy, age 14.
After we opened presents, he skulked upstairs, got in bed, and wouldn’t come down. This was not a case of teenage snottiness or being spoiled; Tommy is one of the most grateful people I know. Puzzled, I talked to my mother, who said that his only complaint was that Christmas, despite the gifts and family, just didn’t feel fun anymore. Thinking back on my own 14 year old Christmas experience, I completely understood.
Sometime around age 12 or 13, Christmas underwent a radical transition in my head. I cried on Christmas mornings from age 12-14, sometimes for embarrassingly long periods of time. I couldn’t describe the feeling then, and I was quite horrified at my behavior. Of course I was grateful for my gifts and loved everything about Christmas, but… it had changed.
It changed in several ways. First, I no longer believed in Santa- that may seem a trivial point, but so much of my existing memory of childhood Christmases is based on the absolute wonder and joy I felt making cards and cookies for Santa. Becoming a teenager and letting go of Santa meant, in large part, letting go of the magic of Christmas. At the same time, adolescence meant I could more clearly remember Christmases past, especially in terms of the excitement I felt at receiving new toys. As a teenager, gifts just weren’t as exciting- jewelry, though I love it, could never trump a brand new Breyer horse that I’d been wishing for for months. This, combined with all the memories of happiness I had of St. Louis and Christmas magic that no longer fit, brought me to confused tears.
Being a young teenager at Christmas is depressing not because young teenagers are ungrateful, but because the transition from the magic of childhood Christmases to adult Christmases is such a radical change in expectations. When you’re 13, you expect this feeling of wonder and joy and giddiness from Christmas that no longer comes. And that disappointment can be heartbreaking.
This isn’t to say that Christmas is awful after childhood. Far from it. Now that I’ve adjusted to teenage Christmases, I absolutely love the holiday- now I’m Santa for my little cousins and my expectations of Christmas have entirely changed. It’s only to say that coming of age affects so many aspects of a child’s life, especially in relation to annual events tied to such emotional childhood memories.
I told my brother this and he seemed to feel much better. He needed to know that someone could empathize with his feelings, and that the disappointment and confusion was neither permanent nor individual. Growing up can be painful, but it’s also something that every child wants to do in his or her own way.
Growing up, we do lose many joyous things. Many of us stop believing in magic, and as an extension stop believing in an inherent goodness that pervades the world. We become exposed to horrors that rock our views of humanity and the universe. However, I do not think this has to be a tragic transition. We have two options as we age: to succumb to the bad or to make the choice to spread more good. We can turn to bad crowds and bad situations to cope with the pain, to numb ourselves from the new and bad world. We can also accept that the world is not a perfect place, but make the conscious choice to add as much good to the world as we can. The truth is that the world is in some ways cruel and horrible, but our reactions to these truths is completely of our own choosing.
Much of growing up for me has been learning to accept the harder truths of the world without letting them destroy me. It would perhaps be easy to fall into depression every time I learn of another world tragedy. It takes a certain adult strength to face the world, know that it isn’t perfect, but to love and embrace it anyway.
I returned a Christmas gift this year and gave the twenty dollars to the World Food Program. I know that hunger is not solved now, but I’m choosing to accept that hunger exists and do a little something to solve that. That’s not to say I’m some sort of saint- I’m nothing of the kind. As a continuation of becoming an adult, I’m just trying to see the world as it is, accept it, and make a positive contribution. Maybe that’s corny, especially around Christmastime, but I think that’s what adult Christmastime is about. Not Santa, not Christmas magic, but about embracing the little good we can do for the world around the Christmas season.
This was a bit of a rant, my apologies. My last thoughts are this: as we go through life, we are exposed to tragedy and suffering. It is our choice whether to resist the truth and suffer or to accept the truth and work to change it. I know you all have the power, compassion, and kindness to change the truth, and I’m so honored to write for a group of people who knows this lesson. Did you do anything for someone this holiday season? Let me know!