The melancholy of Christmas
When the holiday season isn't always so joyful for some.
Over the weekend, the kid and I discussed how it didn’t really feel like the holidays this year. “What would make it feel more like the holidays?” I asked. “Lights. Seeing holiday lights.” I know it sounds like a simple fix, and I promised her that we’d go brave the crowds to see some lights around the city once this deep freeze lifted, but it also felt like a euphemism for something deeper that was harder to describe. It would almost be too easy to dismiss this feeling as missing the people who we used to celebrate with because even as a kid, I often felt this emptiness and letdown on Christmas day too. This is different from grief. It kind of surprises me that as an adult, I feel this still.
If I were to ask my mom why Christmas day felt so empty, I’m sure she would say it was because I didn’t go to church. Maybe she is right, but not for the reasons she thinks. Growing up, there was much anxiety about church on Christmas day. Would we go or would we not? For my mom, religion played a huge role in her life, but not my father’s, and this was probably the biggest point of contention in their marriage. Oftentimes, I felt like I was pulled in the middle of their religion war. There were some years when all 4 of us did go to Christmas service, my brother, dad, and I sitting in the back pews while my mother was up on the altar with the choir. Those church outings were awkward because various people from the congregation would always come up to us and exclaim warmly in Korean how nice it was to see us there, but their greetings only exposed the fact that we were not regulars. As uncomfortable as it was to go to church with my dad, those Christmases were one of relief because it meant that a sense of peace in the house was won. It was a family outing no matter how it transpired in the days, or even hours, before. In the years that my dad would sit out—which was most of the time—it would just be the three of us: my mom, my brother and me. But most years it would just be my mom who went to church alone. Those were the Christmases that felt the loneliest, each of us in our own corners of the house doing or own thing until my mom came back later in the day, often with a bag of cookies and rice cakes that were served after the service.
But Christmas Eve? I adored it. That night, my many aunts, uncles, and cousins would gather at our house every year, my grandmother stationed on the couch like the matriarch that she was, watching over her clan. Our house was the house where all my relatives temporarily lived when they immigrated to the US, family by family over a span of 15 years, single-handedly brought to America on my mother’s Visa—so it felt a bit like a homecoming. It was always a lively night of activity with the women crowded around the kitchen chopping, slicing, and sautéing, while the men sat around with their glasses of soju or cans of Budweiser in hand, loud in conversation and hand gestures. My nine cousins and I would be scattered all over the house until it was time to open gifts, brightly colored paper and bits of ribbon flying through the air as we tore into presents and envelopes of cash. The night would always end in a raucous game of cards. I treasured those family parties and this is why Christmas day was always a letdown. By morning, it felt like the holidays were already over. The quiet of the day after was always so loud after our guests were gone.
I remember the first time I spent the holidays away from my family sometime during the college years. This is when I experienced traditions like baking cookies, hot chocolate around a fire, picking out a real live tree, and stockings—I mean, we’re talking really basic stuff. But this American Christmas, so unlike my own “American” Christmas, was just like ones I had read in books or watched in movies. You mean, people actually go from house to house caroling? (yes, that year in fact, I did). When I think back to the holidays of my childhood, I realize how my family did their best to adapt to these American traditions. We made the holidays our own, a mashup of Korean and American cultures, our artificial trees dripping in tinsel and decked in glass ornaments as fragile as Christmas seemed to feel some years. It was a relief to spend it away from my dysfunctional family, but let’s face it—most families are dysfunctional, but some hide it better than others.
When I became a parent, I vowed to introduce all those classic American Christmas traditions into our home—the cookie baking, a live tree, crafts, and stockings with the kids’ names embroidered on the hems. We did all those things when the kids were really young, but a new kind of loneliness seeped into our holidays as I spent them mostly alone with the kids in those early years. Mark worked every single holiday as a restaurant pastry chef back then, Mother’s Day included, and was gone all day from dawn till after the last table was served. Our huge extended family holiday parties were long gone by then too. My kids rarely got to experience the chaotic family gatherings that I did growing up.
When we started our business, holiday cookie baking took on an entirely different meaning. Mark and I spent the weeks from Thanksgiving right up until our shipping deadline in such a frenzied state that there was little time to feel anything else. The only times I’ve ever seen Mark cry, in fact, was during the crazy holiday season. I felt guilty a lot in those business years because December, the month I dubbed Holiday!Cookie!Madness!, was also known as Neglect-a-thon since the kids were pretty much left to their own devices to entertain themselves while we tried to keep up with orders. Most years I was also juggling a full time job or a freelance project. I remember one year a thoughtful neighbor bought a tree for us because we were too slammed to get one. I was also thankful for the times my mother-in-law came to visit in December when they were younger, and all those years my sister-in-law sent a box of 25 small gifts for each kid, to be opened daily like an advent calendar. When our shipping deadlines were over and we let out a huge sigh of relief, we welcomed the quiet on Christmas day, grateful for all the orders, but also relieved that we survived another holiday. Our own holiday activities always started that week between Christmas and New Year’s, delayed until we shipped our last box. And after all those years of working restaurant service, it still felt like a marvel when Mark was home on Christmas.
The holiday season now is a reminder of my dad. 2020 and that first winter Covid surge when testing positive was still a death sentence in nursing homes. This is what lives in my recent Christmas day memory. I’ve struggled to decorate the tree these 2 years, taking as much as a week to hang all the ornaments. I also just realized in writing this that the last time I saw my brother alive was when he and his family spent Christmas with us. I don’t think I’ve connected those dots before. But this year I think the holiday melancholy is also from this unstructured month off that I have had. There’s usually this build up of anticipation leading up to those days off from work, like the last week of school before vacation. There are the office parties, the holiday treats in the kitchen sent by clients, and darting into stores after work to shop for gifts on the way home. Even if the month was filled with sleep deprived stress as we packed cookies and tied ribbon after ribbon, we at least felt something. This year, however, Christmas just blended into the other days of the month.
I didn’t intend to write a post this week because I didn’t really know what I wanted to write about, but when I sat down, the words came fast. I debated whether or not to even publish this. This is so depressing, I heard the little voice in me say. Why would anyone want to read this right now? But if you are feeling this way too, you are not alone. And this is why I started this Substack—to give myself the time in an accountable way to reflect and process all of this stuff. To share it with you feels a little self indulgent. Mostly though, I wanted to think about why I often feel so empty on Christmas day, this listless melancholy that I could never quite figure out. In some ways, the pressure to push these feelings aside to create a happy holiday season for the kids feels less and less necessary as they grow older; it’s refreshing to even be able to have real conversations like this with them. Still, I don’t want that childhood holiday magic that we inevitably outgrow to dim faster than it needs to. This year, we had our first “coming home for the holidays” experience when the college kid came home. It felt like an ushering of a new era of holiday family time. I welcome the anticipation of that.
Plus, we will always have the lights.
Three articles I found interesting this week
My Year of Giving Up - Adeline Dimond
The viral AI avatar app Lensa undressed me—without my consent - Melissa Heikkilä
The Nocturnals - Faith Hill
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Festival holidays in it’s various forms are generally a mixed bag for many. For us it’s Chinese New Year. The traditions! Expectations. Ghost of festive past. It’s always one let down/resentment away from a roasted duck for dinner! Ala Christmas story.
Jenna, this may be my favorite post yet. That will-we-go-to-church tension is such a marker for my own Christmas evolution too, as my sister and I gained opinions and spouses with opinions. Then deaths and shrinking family added reminders of lost rituals, especially as my mom developed a dependence on Hallmark movies. This year felt unlike Christmas until we broke out a puzzle after dinner and talked for hours. When I left town, my mom, sister and I all commented on what a nice day it was. We felt close, which was the best holiday gift after this pandemic. Thanks for sharing and stirring my pot with it. There are always lights. Sometimes they are people.