If you’ve read my essay “Christmas Past” (growing up in the 70s) then you know the Christmases I had growing up were simple, family-centered, and very traditional in the area we lived in. For as long as I’m alive those childhood memories of Christmas will always be a part of me.
Unfortunately once I graduated high school I would never be invited back home for a family Christmas at the farm. Christmases in my late teens and early twenties were pretty lonely– I truly existed on my memories from childhood. Even though I was in a long-term relationship, I wasn’t invited to his family Christmas until I was twenty-four. I spent seven Christmases alone or working and if I was lucky enough to receive an invitation from friends, I did everything I could to help make their Christmas the best Christmas. Often that meant helping them afford Christmas gifts for children, cleaning for them, and/or preparing Christmas dinner. I felt at the time I had to “buy” my Christmas invitation from “friends.” I never gave much thought to what I was asked to do because I felt so grateful to have somewhere to go for the holidays.
In the early years, I made trips back to the family farm–two of them at Christmas time to drop off gifts for my mom and siblings. Both times I remember going out on the road to travel the two-hour distance in perilous weather. Because I didn’t have a car I had to pay friends for the use of their vehicles. The last time I drove to the farm for Christmas I was nineteen years old and my mother didn’t want to come out and take the gifts. I remember how upset I was, I cried all the way home through a blizzard and never made that trip again.
The last Christmas I had with family was in 1997 at my sister’s home. I remember it was a couple of years after I got married, and I believe just after my step-father had passed away. Even though my husband and I both enjoyed being with my family for Christmas, nothing was like it had been. I remember feeling like a complete stranger, walking on pins and needles, and feeling out of place. The years I was cast out swept under the rug for this person’s sake or another, and I meant to sit quietly and take it all in and not spoil anyone’s fun.
Throughout the years I’d had to adjust to not being allowed home. I had been forced to push aside and push deep inside all my emotions, and hurt in not being allowed to come home and see family unless of course my step-father was down in the barn still doing chores. I learned to cope, but it was not easy. For a few years my work kept me busy seven days a week/ fourteen hour a day. As a home health provider (live-in)I was kept busy around the clock. I was also responsible for helping to make the person I took care of and her very large extended family have a wonderful holiday season each year. Whether it was baking around the clock, decorating, or wrapping a mountain of gifts each year, that’s how I spent Christmas until my early twenties.
Nothing changed when my siblings got married or reached an age where they could reach out and make the decision to reconnect with me. Instead, they chose to carry on the “family tradition” of disownment which hurt even worse. Of course, once my parents disowned me I never saw or talked with my brother again until I was thirty years old. He was eight or nine when I left home. I next saw my sister when she was 24, she had been 15 when I left home. Neither of my siblings would come out and get their gifts from me at Christmas time, they instead expected my mother to gather them up from me. I never heard a thank you, or even if they liked them. But those things never stopped me from wanting to give them more. Though I never received a gift from any of them for all those years, and I surely never expected one, the best one I could have ever received would have been time with them.
I reached a point in my mid-twenties when I realized that even though Christmas time may be about family time, family gatherings, and building family memories this was definitely not going to be my story. I had spent too many holidays looking in windows, crying in driveways, and pleading on telephones for “family” to take me back and include me in their celebrations.
I believed that Christmas miracles were for other people and songs like “I’ll be home for Christmas” just made me sadder, and hope, hope that somehow I’d be forgiven for the reason I was disowned (the person I was in a “relationship” with) never came.
Eventually, in time I made the solemn pledge, I would begin my own traditions, and carry on with Christmas with or without family because in my heart of hearts Christmas was and would always be– a celebration of Jesus Christ’s birthday. No one could take that away from me. He hadn’t disowned me, forgotten me, or cast me out of His family.
And so for several years, it was Jesus and me together at Christmas time. I decorated simply with whatever I’d managed to find at a thrift store and saved all year to buy small gifts for close friends. I also offered help to my friends by way of assisting with holiday meal preparations. Instead of buying my way into an invitation with friends I simply chose better friends who appreciated my company–no materials gifts needed.
From this came me offering a plate of food here and there for people I knew didn’t have food or family to spend Christmas dinner with. And from that came years now of volunteer work in soup kitchens, shelters, and churches.
I was able to turn my hurt, rejection, and pain into the gift of giving. Giving to others took the pain of my not being allowed home away. Giving took my mind off of myself and turned it towards people far more in need of my time, than those who had turned their backs on me.
When I got married I married into a family that took Christmas and gift-taking to a whole new level. The first two Christmases family arguments ensued over someone or another’s idea of how much was spent on their gift. This would not do for me, or for my husband’s and my Christmas. So while we compromised and continued to celebrate with them Dec. 5th (my husband is Dutch), he and I had our own Christmas in our home by ourselves each year after that.
Our Christmas present is a mixture of giving to others, keeping with our own traditions, and including some from Christmas past. First and foremost though it’s about Jesus. How big our tree is, or how fancy our decor, how many gifts bought or who’s coming to dinner are secondary to our Christmas celebration.
At 53 years of age, I’ve come to terms with a lot. Time goes by so fast– twenty, thirty years are suddenly behind you. In my case, 53 years have gone by and no longer am I 17. So many of my friends have passed away–my best friend growing up, a good friend I had out of high school, roommates I’ve had over time, friends I’ve met from online, and even some of my co-workers (some considerably younger than me) gone too soon. Now not for many years have I been on the outside looking in, and no one, for too long to remember, has made me feel as insignificant and unloved as my own family once did so many years ago. I can’t condone or accept disowning one’s family members for any reason at all. My family was not royalty, or heirs to a fortune and even then I wouldn’t approve of it. Over the years I’ve learned to move forward from that young girl and transition into a functioning young woman and eventually a grown woman up until and into middle age. Older age is not far behind. My life has not been perfect one minute since I’ve been alive and anyone who believes my life is perfect doesn’t know me. I could and may someday write pages about my husband’s and my struggles both financially and with family during our almost 23 years of marriage. We’ve got what little we’ve got today because every day we struggled and never gave up. Each Thanksgiving our thanks is given first to the Lord and second to each other for hanging in there.
Christmas is often a time for family members stress loads to reach an overwhelming state. I experienced this with my husband’s family and their competitive natures at holiday time. Meltdown after meltdown was our typical Christmas day for several years with his family. Each time I longed for the simple times I had growing up. Each year I longed more as each Christmas became one more power struggle between his family members. I will never fully understand the dynamics of some families. Admittedly I am not perfect, and along the way have made some regrettable mistakes. There was a time a few years back where I would have endured a bit more pain from family in order to set some things right. That time came and went and in the interim, I’ve dealt with a family member whose ability to recognize the truth is impaired and her actions toward me border on levels of pure cruelty. Which of courses reaffirms to me that it was a good thing I never returned to the fold. To a family that thrives on devaluing and disowning one of their own.
I think that everyone in a family should feel valuable. For most of my life, I never quite got over how my siblings got away with everything (including things way worse than I’d ever done), and I’d been severely punished and disowned. It’s one thing for partners, friends, or co-workers to devalue you, though that really hurts too, but quite another when flesh and blood decide they don’t want you around anymore. I would guess for over thirty-five years I felt like less of a human being because of it. I was always waiting for my family to take me back. No doubt had they, they would have found another reason to push me back out. Years later it would be a lie that was very hurtful, told by my sister, maybe to intentionally sabotage my coming back into the fold that stopped me from reconnecting. Her hurtful words of why they hadn’t reconnected with me for almost thirteen years–“we thought you were dead” when all along they had received letters from me and returned them to sender really hurt me to the bone. If she would have said anything other than that I think the outcome would have been different.
Once FB came along it got way easier to connect with long lost family and friends. My experiences with reconnecting with family through FB have been relatively uneventful. I find FB to be a very shallow, disconcerting form of social media and keep connected to it only to keep up to date on places we visit, volunteer at, and for marketing our new business in the coming year. I’ve been fairly disappointed in those I thought I would have some kind of online “friendship” with me, and quite surprised by others who have stepped right up and become true friends to me. I think FB is a lot like the illusions we kid ourselves with. I waxed nostalgia for years about how I grew up–all Norman Rockwell like. But the truth is very little about my upbringing was even close to idyllic and charming. The same goes for the shock and awe of my family when I finally chose to walk away from their ill attempts to win me back. They couldn’t believe that this sweet, nice, and generous person could be so cold and cruel. They hadn’t been around that sweet and generous person for many years– their choice. Luckily, though it took some years to get through the hurt, that sweet and generous person still existed. Equally as bad as the first attempt the second attempt was also a dishonest one. Suddenly I felt like I was 17 again and finally put an end to it. Judging by the words conveyed to me by this family member her intentions were never honest, I was just being brought back into the fold for a need they needed satisfied. So I passed. Any and every attempt since my first refusal has become more desperate to downright evil. I often think if the roles had been reversed how they would have felt, acted, and moved on watching their family forget them and believe them dead. Deep down I believe my family wishes I would have fulfilled their prophecy of me and that was to end up a drunk or an addict or dead in the bottom of some river. Unfortunately, I’ve done just the opposite and live a happy well-adjusted life surrounded by people who value me as a human being first, and secondly as a friend/family member.
One shouldn’t have to wait for Christmas time to show those around you how much they mean to you, or how much they are loved. For those that don’t have a family– then value your friendships and hold them near. Feeling special, or giving of one’s self shouldn’t just happen once a year. We shouldn’t just hope for miracles at Christmas time but in every day. Social media is overwhelming at this time of year. My head spins looking at the amount of stress some people must be under. Nevermind how much they spend$. Every year I watch it all come to a head, and every year I watch these same people on social media have meltdowns. If all Christmas time ever means to you is stress, maxed out credit cards, and disappointment than that’s all it will ever be.
You’ve probably asked yourself how I, after such amazing childhood memories of Christmas past; and then later heartaches, was able to move forward to share a wonderful Christmas present. Well– here’s a tip or two. 1) Start simple with a strong foundation and build from that. 2) If you don’t have childhood memories of Christmas to fall back on then create some now for future holidays. 3) Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses, because you know what? The Joneses are broke. And stressed out and sick–don’t forget that!!
For many years I couldn’t see the Christmas miracle in my situation, but it was there all along. It was my willingness to reach out to others and give of myself at Christmas time instead of sitting back and wallowing in my own unhappiness. In doing this I was saved from a life of misery and introduced not only to the real reason for the season but also to the gift of giving. With that, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!