t has been a difficult fall, a difficult year. I just killed another plant. It seems like everyone is getting sick and then sicker; my friends are experiencing losses so catastrophic they seem impossible to live through; we’re all hooked up to bad news like it’s a toxic IV drip.
And yet, ‘tis the season. For merry and bright, for lighting candles and celebrating, for caterwauling in sequins. Sometimes it feels like the holidays require a kind of collective deception: This year, the turkey won’t burn, our family won’t fight, we’ll all get exactly what we want. We won’t notice the empty chairs at the table. We’ll all have exactly as much as we need. It’s like Judy Garland warbles in the song that never fails to break my heart — “Next year all our troubles will be miles away” — the stubborn belief that everything will get better, even when we suspect we’re being foolish, or suspect that can’t be true.
But it’s December, the time for searching for silver linings even if it kills us — which was the notion I had in mind when I set out on a recent week of forced holiday cheer. I wanted to find out if I could embrace the season without irony, to see if giving in to the spirit could make me feel more connected to optimism. Could it crack the protective shell of low expectations that has become my security blanket this year?
My husband and I had decided not to get a tree this year since we’re traveling most of December, but as soon as Thanksgiving winds down I drag him to a local nursery. The trees are piled in glorious heaps. It’s like opening a box of new crayons, almost alive with potential. Everything smells good. I skip awkwardly through the mud, smiling maniacally. They are playing Christmas carols and I don’t even want to yell at anyone. We pick out an apartment-sized Balsam Fir, and while my husband helps the guy attach it to the car, I sneak back and grab a bundle of holly berries and eucalyptus for our front door.
We decorate the tree later that night. I re-hang all the ornaments because my husband does it wrong. How many fairy lights is too many fairy lights? NO SUCH THING. I am very happy, but also slightly melancholic. Decorating Christmas trees in adulthood never fails to remind me of When Harry Met Sally, when Sally has to drag that tree home all by herself, and all the years I spent single in New York, buying tiny trees and trying my hardest to make things festive while feeling more alone than I ever knew possible, but also stronger, too. It’s strange to have a husband; I don’t know if that will ever not be true. Our living room looks the best it ever has, and I regret nothing.
At their core, the holidays are about connection, so on day two I reach out to essentially everyone I’ve texted in the last month and follow up on all my unanswered emails, checking in, wishing well, just putting it out into the ether that I’m grateful for the presence of good people in my life. I spend the next few hours clutching my phone, willing everyone to respond, which makes me feel like a creampuff of loneliness, exquisite and unseen. I remind myself that the point is not to demand love but rather to give it freely and without expectation. So while I’m waiting for people to text me back, I kiss my cat a lot and tell him how much he is loved. He hates me.
My Christmas anxiety dreams start in August and recur annually: It’s Christmas morning and I haven’t purchased any gifts, I try to find a store but everything is closed, my family looks forlornly at their empty stockings, etc. I wake up sweating and lock-jawed and I suppose the solution might be to stop placing so much importance on getting everyone the perfect gift, but where’s the fun in that? On day three, I try to mitigate the inevitable anxiety by taking a few hours to scour gift guides, making note this year of things I can buy directly from small businesses, because what is Christmas if not a time to assuage some of the guilt we carry daily from contributing to the rise of our corporate overlords?
It is nice to buy things for people. It is nicer to make things for people, which is why I’m trying to knit a tiny sweater for a friend’s new baby. It is even nicer to get things for people who might not get much, so this year I “adopt” a nine-year-old boy in Boston and start checking things off his holiday list. This is a very easy thing to do.
Is there any better litmus test for whether you are actually old than your ability to withstand the holiday-decked mall? I used to swear I’d never become my parents, complaining about parking and crowds and screaming children, and now here I am, complaining about parking and crowds and screaming children.
So I leave work early on day four to walk to the mall, the city all violet with cold and the early dusk. I spin through the lobbies of a few fancy hotels on my walk there, because fancy hotels do the holidays right. In the park they are setting up the ice skating rink. The squirrels are all very chunky. The mall itself, however, is disappointing. They’ve apparently decided to go sort of modernist and non-denominational with their decor, which I appreciate in theory, but which winds up looking aloof and angry, sort of like the ballroom of a very polite dictator. Nothing about the mall inspires any feelings of cheer, so I return a lipstick to Sephora just to have something to do. Consumerism, as it turns out, is not the cure for a lack of faith in humanity.
Today I have an appointment to get my errant IUD removed, which, if you are looking for activities that will get you in the holiday spirit, this isn’t it! On any other week, I would have gone straight home and submerged myself in blankets and casual self-loathing, but there’s no room for that on Cheer Week. Instead, I take a hot shower and get right into my coziest socks, which are essentially like personal foot clouds. I submit this as the coziest state of being: wet hair, bare skin against fleece-lined clothing, mug of tea.
I light my Fancy Candle™ (Tobacco and Vanilla, pleasingly winter-y in a non-cloying way), put on the exquisite 1994 Winona Ryder vehicle Little Women (holiday cozy quotient: high), and write my holiday cards. They have little sloths on them! Sloths in winter hats! Holiday cards are a thing I usually commit to doing right around December 24th — one year, in a striking display of ineptitude, I actually took photos of the cards I had failed to mail and texted them to their intended recipients. But it feels good to be earnest, at least on paper — to find yet another avenue for reaching across space and telling the people in my life that the earth is still spinning and they are still loved. I decide to surprise my husband by baking a loaf of chocolate banana bread, so basically slap a bow on my head and call me Zooey Deschanel on the cover of that Christmas album she made.
By day six, after taking an old winter coat to a coat drive and signing up to foster bottle-baby kittens, I discover that leaning into the holidays, truly and earnestly giving over to the idea of connection and cheer and giving, has transformed me into an exposed nerve of tenderness. I want to get out there and shower the people around me with glitter, but I also want to curl up until this difficult year is over, until a new one swans into view, all gilded potential and ambition. But I force myself to make plans for the weekend even as I feel a cold coming on: A road trip to a women’s holiday market, a tree-trimming party, a performance of the Messiah at a beautiful old church. I puzzle out how to wear sequins to at least two out of the three events, but can’t shake the feeling that I’ll be looked at funny, as if I’m rubbing it in everyone’s face, this joy, this good cheer.
But that’s all I’ve got — this tenuous hold on optimism, on the potential for a well-fed squirrel on a cold park bench to make me smile. What the holidays offer is ephemeral moment, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it alchemy, no matter how or what you choose to celebrate. What I’ve learned this week is that the only way to seize that is to plow forward with the belief that giving in and giving up this veneer of brittle disaffection is the only way to actually make any kind of measurable difference — to my own year, to the lives of others, to the bad stuff that will continue to happen, but will look a little more bearable, a little easier to fix, under the soft glow of a peppermint-scented candle.
Illustrations by Drew Albo; Photos provided by Meghan Nesmith.