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.