Christmas is upon us, and I am barely present for it this year.
Amid health scares, a whole lot of winter weather and adapting to my shift from full-time career to part-time work from home, my husband and I never bothered to buy a tree. In years past we got a free Douglas fir from a colleague at my workplace, but since leaving there I can’t justify the effort — or the money — to purchase a tree, cajole my husband into setting it up, decorating it and then reverse-ordering those tasks once the needles start to hit the floor in January.
The rituals don’t mean as much without children in the house, and the dogs are indifferent.
I’m giving gift certificates and cash to my two grown sons, and my husband and I agreed to forego material gifts in favor of joint outings during the week I am off between Christmas and New Year’s. Being tourists in our city, we call it, eating in restaurants we haven’t tried, visiting museums we never get to and haunting antique stores for just the right find.
As I did last year, I asked my siblings to forego their thoughtful but unnecessary gifts of chocolate, cheese and boxed fruit in favor of donating to one of my two favorites causes — reproductive freedom (Planned Parenthood North Central States) and hunger relief (Keystone Community Services). And I, in turn, donated to causes of theirs.
No, I’m not a Scrooge or a Grinch. I keep my wraparound porch trimmed with colored lights throughout the year and remain susceptible to the emotional uplift of “Silent Night” or “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” hymns I well remember from my Methodist upbringing. But neither do I celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday any longer. (“I’m a Unitarian, not a Trinitarian,” I explained recently to a friend.)
And so in a year when I have turned 65, undergone a life-shifting career change and been hit with a medical diagnosis that forces me to reshape my approach to exercise, eating and self-care, I have neither the time nor the energy — nor the desire — to invest in the secular rituals that inspire many people to overspend, overconsume and overdo throughout the month of December.
Christmas Eve, our usual family gathering time, will be at the house that my younger son and his partner purchased earlier this year. “I can’t celebrate Christmas without a tree,” he told me recently at our monthly family dinner. So, I suggested that he host. “It’s their turn,” I told one of my older sisters, who likewise has ceded most holiday celebrations to her grown kids. My role is to cook chicken wild rice soup and bake spoon bread — and then allow a new tradition to unfold.
Aging changes the holiday season, or at least it has for me. I don’t need anything, so why ask for gifts? What I want (earrings, snowshoes, warm leggings, winter gloves), I would rather buy myself.
I am earning less than when I was working full time, which has me looking askance at all the stuff we distract ourselves with, the needless crap that eventually will end up in a landfill, like the Roomba hitting my feet during a recent meeting at a coffee shop. How hard is it to sweep the wooden floor?
I’ve recycled a dozen holiday catalogs that have shown up at my house unbidden, unwanted. Filled with cardigans, scarves, wool socks, monogrammed bathrobes, DVD collections of classic TV shows, dog- or cat-themed throw pillows and flowing tops without a waistline, the catalogs are clearly targeting women of a certain age and era.
Bathtub reading, if nothing else, worth browsing for the amusing T-shirts:
- The Proper Term for ‘Senior’ Women Should Be Queen-Agers (Acorn)
- Don’t Rush Me. I’m Waiting for the Last Minute
- Never trust an atom. They make up everything.
- I don’t mind getting older but my body is taking it badly.
- I’m silently correcting your grammar. (Signals)
- Moses was the first person with a tablet, downloading data from the cloud
- 90 Percent of Being Married Is Yelling ‘What?’ From Other Rooms.
- Underestimate me. That’ll be fun.
- I sometimes wonder what happened to people who have asked me for directions (Shop PBS)
- Don’t look back. You’re not going that way.
It’s all fine. It’s fun. But it’s a waste. The catalogs are full of the nothing-you-need stuff that make gift stores so seductive. How much will you pay for a scented candle or a pound of specially wrapped coffee beans that weighs only 12 ounces?
And yet: I was moved to tears a week ago during a Christmas concert at a historic Catholic church when my son’s partner, Tess, who has been singing since childhood, performed with the all-female Partners in Praise choir. They concluded the evening by walking down the aisle and stopping along the way to place a hand on the shoulder of a loved one. While the soprano and alto voices sang the Irish hymn “May the Road Rise Up to Meet You,” I felt tears spontaneously streaming down my face. Not because Tess’ voice was beautiful, though it is. Not because I was witness to how much she loves my son, and he her.
No, I wept for the little boys who are grown up men now, who have their own homes, their own lives. I cried for all the people who aren’t here anymore, the parents and sibling and sister-in-law and friends whom I can’t call up to talk to — though I long to have those conversations — and whom I, as an unconventional believer, am unsure I will ever see again.
Christmas is quieter than it used to be, and so I tell myself that is what I want. I say that I’m relieved not to navigate the politics and resentments of divorced parents and multiple households to visit, the strains of putting on a meaningful celebration for small children all while working and commuting and having too little time and money.
When I walk the half mile to Grand Avenue on Sunday morning and board the #63 bus that will take me to Unity Church-Unitarian for the “Small Wonders” service that acknowledges Christmas Day, I will be by myself. But I won’t be alone.
My mom, my stepmother, my father, my son’s godmother Peggy, my friend D.L., my beloved older brother, Fred: All will be with me — in my mind, if nowhere else. And that will be Christmas enough for me.