I’ve never seen a Hallmark Christmas movie. I know they’re popular for their delightful escapism. But I’m self-aware enough to know my triggers, and I believe Hallmark movies might be one of them. It’s not that I’ve ever returned to my hometown and had a disastrous holiday hookup ― instead, it’s Christmas itself that is the problem.
There are myriad reasons why people feel depressed during the winter holiday season. For some, it’s the expectations. A popular Christmas song tells us this is the happiest time of the year. The media portrays warm togetherness at every turn. But Hallmark’s version of what happy family holidays should look like isn’t the reality for everyone.
I grew up in a dysfunctional household. We were one of those families that couldn’t keep it together for 364 days of the year. Yet unlike the other parts of my childhood, Christmas morning was magical. I shudder to think of the annual debt my mother must have incurred to heroically turn that one day into an enchanted miracle.
My younger sister and I were allowed to open our stockings early as long as we didn’t wake up my mother and her boyfriend. They were enormous and filled with small toys, hand-held games or puzzles, kids’ magazines, food and other trinkets. Later, unwrapping gifts took hours, with my sister and me alternating opening presents one at a time. Christmas morning was a reprieve from the battlefield that our home often became, and it’s one of my few happy childhood memories.
By my teens, I was living in group homes. Some kids got to go back home for Christmas, but I wasn’t one of them. Spending Christmas in foster care highlighted the things I didn’t have. I no longer had a family that inexplicably transformed into a Hallmark creation one day a year. There was no more joyfully decorated tree or mountain of gifts, nor was there anything to temporarily distract from the dysfunctions that had landed me in the system.
Each December, the group home kids would be asked to create a Christmas list. Once, the rule was that items couldn’t cost more than $10. Another year, no matter what was on her list, every girl received a piggy bank in the shape of a 12-inch-tall California Raisins character, with a single box of Sun-Maid raisins taped to its leg. Other years brought warm clothing and essentials: thick socks, knit hats, and six-packs of white underpants that came in plastic packages. I always imagined the stranger who took my hand-lettered list to the store and dropped off the wrapped gifts without knowing which girl I was among the faces.
My first holiday in the system was a shock. I was surrounded by counselors and troubled teens instead of the sense of love and belonging that enveloped me with my family, despite the damages of the past year. And nobody else seemed to know or care about what we were missing. In subsequent years, I’d seethe with jealousy at the girls who got to go home for even one night. It felt like their families must love them more than mine loved me.
I aged out of foster care when I turned 18 and began navigating my independence. I attended community college and worked part time at a dry cleaner, so I could barely afford rent, much less gifts for my family. That first year, I skipped Christmas entirely. I hung out instead with a group of friends from school who also weren’t going home. None of us exchanged gifts or asked each other why we weren’t with our families.
One year in my early 20s, money was particularly tight. It felt unthinkable to show up empty-handed, so I spent two months attempting to knit a sweater for my mother. In the end, it was a monstrosity, and I had to put it in a cereal box because I couldn’t afford wrapping paper. That year feels like a low point.
For me, the holiday season brings feelings of anxiety and inadequacy rather than holiday cheer. I don’t know if the holidays make me uncomfortable because they remind me of childhood Christmases I’ll never get back or of all those Christmases in the system. Whichever it is, I’ve rejected traditional holiday routines as an adult.
I don’t have a relationship with my mother or sister today, so there is no “going home for the holidays.” I don’t have children, so I’ve never wanted to re-create a traditional Christmas morning.
My husband and I own a small business, so we usually spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day on projects we can’t complete when the business is open. However, we always set aside the week between Christmas and New Year’s to pack the car and hit the road toward a destination I probably booked in August. (With December dates in high demand, I’ve learned to make our reservations when most people are still thinking about summer.)
Our destinations have ranged from Florida, where the palm trees are decked out in twinkling lights, to mountain cabins where we’ve been snowed in. This year we’ve opted for a cabin that faces a river, nestled in a mountain valley. I reserved it during a sweltering heat wave. It was the last one available and, fortunately, one of the most isolated.
We’ve created a few “holiday” traditions. Our cabins must have a fireplace and a full kitchen. Aside from the winter outdoor activities we enjoy, we always look forward to sitting in front of a roaring fire. We can spend hours sipping port and playing the board game Go. We enjoy cooking from scratch during our vacations because we can rarely slow down like that during the rest of the year.
New Year’s Eve is our big holiday event. On this day, we leave the cabin searching for something fun and local. We may spend the day in the closest mountain village, at a brewery, or browsing if there’s an antique mall nearby. In the evening, we exchange a single gift each while enjoying a generous charcuterie we call a picnic. Most years we stream the Times Square New Year’s Eve ball drop if the cabin’s Wi-Fi is strong enough. However, we hardly pay attention to it until the countdown. The dog snoozes at our feet, and we share a beautiful kiss at the stroke of midnight. After over a decade of late-night picnics in front of a fireplace, I believe we’ve created our version of the most magical time of year.
Some might say my decision to skip dealing with Christmas altogether is a kind of avoidance. Maybe I’m not confronting my issues and all those other things a therapist would say if there weren’t such a long waiting list to get one these days. But this time of year is difficult for many of us for a variety of reasons, and I feel fortunate to be able to choose my own holiday adventure.
What we see in the media isn’t the reality for so many of us. If holiday traditions are triggering or upsetting, it’s OK to eschew the parts that make you uncomfortable, or cancel them entirely. Or, you can do what I did and create your own traditions that have nothing to do with pine trees or tinsel. If you’re looking for permission or even a sign to do the same, let this be it. My husband and I have turned what could be a sad time for me into something I actually look forward to. And in doing so, we’ve created a different kind of holiday spirit.