Each fall, without fail, Christmas starts chipping away at my self-esteem before the day has even arrived. Daylight, especially sunshine, is short-lived in Toronto this time of year. The chill settles in, and, as if the overcast gray weren’t depressing enough, the festive decorations come out, the soundtrack of carols gets switched on, and the holiday movies are queued up. All of it fills me with a quiet, hard despair that is so bleak, I have to laugh and shake my head.
At age 36, my reserve of so-called Christmas spirit has run dry. I’m tapped out. So this year, I’m not doing it. I’m opting out of my family’s celebrations.
That’s the plan, at least. So far, opting out of Christmas hasn’t been as easy as unsubscribing to an e-newsletter. I’ve waffled, and I’ve wavered these last few days, wondering if, like in a Hallmark movie, what I truly must learn is that Christmas spirit is compromise — that agreeing to participate in a limited array of festive activities could be what I really need. But I’ve come so far in my negotiations, which are ongoing as I write this, that I really want to see what it’s like to have zero obligations on what has traditionally been a fraught day in my family.
When my elder brother and I were kids, we saw our extended family exactly one time each year: at Christmas. Grandparents stayed over, and my mom whipped up a massive feast for all of her siblings and their families. Then we’d pack up the car and head to my dad’s sister’s for Boxing Day.
There was always a mess of treats and presents, and my parents worked hard to make it magical. One year, they put a drawing of a skull and crossbones on the basement door a week before Christmas. “DO NOT ENTER, TOXIC LEAK,” it read. On Christmas morning, we were bewildered as we pulled cat toys and a litter scooper out of our stockings before finally guessing that there had never been a leak in the basement. Santa had brought us two tabby cats ― an orange one we named Tabasco and a skittish black one we called Jitters. I’ll never forget it.
But because we saw our extended family only once every year, it was awkward and uncomfortable, and my parents were so busy stirring gravy and fetching cocktails that we’d be left to get reacquainted with the fam. I just wanted to feel safe, cozy and surrounded by familiarity. As the years wore on, we had fewer people over, and we visited even less often.
Or at least that’s how I interpreted what was happening. In actuality, my parents’ marriage was gradually dissolving. I knew there were problems, but they weren’t the loud, fighting types — they practiced a much more passive, quiet kind of resentment that I’m prone to too.
“Because we saw our extended family only once every year, it was awkward and uncomfortable, and my parents were so busy stirring gravy and fetching cocktails that we’d be left to get reacquainted with the fam. I just wanted to feel safe, cozy and surrounded by familiarity.”
So it was a surprise when they separated when I was 20 and away at university. Christmas went from being awkward and fraught to a total minefield. Maybe it was because my parents had both lawyered up, readying themselves for more than 10 years of separation agreement negotiating. (I’m not exaggerating!) But I think it was less complex than that. My dad didn’t know how to stay friends or even friendly with an ex-wife. He felt rejected but also stubborn. If you don’t want me for all that I am, then you can’t have any of me — or at least not any pieces that haven’t been court ordered.
We had many bad Christmases after that. Each year, my parents would ask my brother and me what we wanted to do, as if we would know what to do instead. They’d remove their agency from the equation and, from my perspective, position themselves as victims of impossible circumstances. When we balked, my dad suggested a carol service at a downtown cathedral, even though I’m not even baptized, let alone God-fearing. “We have to create new traditions,” he would say, even if that meant borrowing from other people’s.
But we’d go because we wanted my dad to feel as if everything would be OK. We’d belt out the lyrics to “O Come All Ye Faithful” and exalt like devout Christians because we just wanted him to feel good.
Gone were the lengthy, massive dinners too. My mom said she is officially “over it,” and I can’t blame her; I would be too.
I felt terrible having to leave one parent alone at some point on Christmas while shuffling off to visit the other, so I was focused on ensuring I had some quality time with each one. Sometimes that meant having dinner with my mom’s boyfriend or brunch with my dad’s girlfriend — neither of which felt like relationships I needed to foster, and those encounters were about as awkward as when we invited all those near-strangers over each year when I was young. Other times that meant drinking far, far too many Caesars with rum during the day, which eventually led to sharing morose perspectives on What Went Wrong.
A therapist told me it’s common, when your parents separate when you’re an adult, to question how much of the marriage was authentic before they parted. And yes, I think this is what plagues me as I settle down with my partner, Jerry. I’m trying to figure out what kind of family traditions I want to establish, what kinds of people I want to invite into my home and what responsibilities I have to others to make them feel good this time of year.
But I’m still basing those expectations on a legacy that I’m not sure was honest. My parents hosted a bang-up Christmas each year with all the trimmings, but they failed at talking about their feelings and teamwork. Maybe that happened out of a sense of obligation to everyone around them except themselves. I also think that ― not unlike my desperate people-pleaser self that emerged at Christmas after their separation ― that’s what was motivating my parents to buy so many presents, cook up such a large meal and invite so many strangers over: a sense of obligation to those around them.
“I don’t have the energy to put on the act, especially an act I unconsciously internalized without really considering who it’s for. ... Just this once, I don’t want to fake a perky disposition or walk on a single eggshell, and I don’t want to feel guilty about seeing more of one parent than another.”
I’m tired of that. I don’t have the energy to put on the act, especially an act I unconsciously internalized without really considering who it’s for. If that’s what Christmas spirit truly is, I don’t think my family needs it. I see both my parents frequently year-round. I love my dad’s new wife and her kids, and I get a little kick out of the fact that I’m 36 years old and I’ve just gained four step-siblings. I know that I am deeply loved and that I love them all too. And I also know they’ll all be absolutely fine if I don’t see them on Christmas Day.
So this year, I’m burning it all down so I can try to start fresh. My mom is fine with my opting out — thrilled, even, not have to hobble around a mall on a bad knee. My dad is more concerned and calls my request to opt out “severe.” But so far, he’s fine with my skipping Boxing Day with my brother and not exchanging presents this year. So rather than compromising and attending his Christmas lunch with his new wife and family, I’m avoiding obligations. Just this once, I don’t want to fake a perky disposition or walk on a single eggshell, and I don’t want to feel guilty about seeing more of one parent than another.
I also want to reimagine next year’s holiday season and make a list of things I’d like to do. Clearly, no one else in my family values the gift-giving part, and I’m happy to limit that to Jerry and me. We like it, and it’s a great excuse to support authors and artists we like. So we will do that this year and for many years to come. But do we need a tree? Outdoor lights? Food is important to me, but maybe the menu is getting stale. I want to rethink the whole shebang.
Maybe Christmas isn’t about obligations or presents or big meals to you. Maybe you have a deeper, spiritual connection to this time of year or you’re good at compartmentalizing your feelings and you’re not glued to a seasonal affective disorder lamp through November and December. To that I say, good for you!
I’m just going to take this one year off to figure out what I want this time of year to be ― and mean ― for me. And of course, I know that Christmas will never be perfect. But at least future Christmases will be conceived by us in the present, without the ghosts of regret coloring our view of what it supposedly should be.
Kate Robertson is a journalist who covers the Canadian cannabis industry for Weedmaps and Leafly, and she writes an advice column called Weedsplainer for Lift & Co.