Some of our holiday traditions — yours?

By Caitlin Kelly

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For some people, the holidays are a time of dread and loneliness, for others a riot of celebration.

We’re spending this Christmas at home. My mother and I have no relationship and my father (again) and I are estranged; last year we drove up to Ontario and had a lovely time with him and my half-brother and sister-in-law.

It’s been a difficult year financially — lower income and much higher health insurance costs have made this a low-budget holiday for us.

We might go next door for Christmas dinner to the Castle, (yes, it’s a castle!), a gorgeous hotel. It’s a rare, elegant treat, as cooking a whole turkey only for two seems a bit much.

A few of our holiday traditions:

— sending cards, with a letter, to about 40 friends.

— covering the back of our apartment door with every holiday card as it arrives

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— savoring a fresh-cut pine tree, covered with winking lights and ornaments we’ve enjoyed for years (that smell!)

— scattering fresh pine boughs atop our cupboards and armoires

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— hanging a  wreath on our apartment door

— listening to a holiday mix-tape Jose made a few years ago

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— enjoying these delicious German biscuits, which my late granny introduced me to

— attending a Christmas church service, belting out all my favorite carols

Christmas Eve has been a less-lovely memory for me since I was 14 and had a terrifying experience that night in Mexico. (I’m fine now.)

So Jose re-branded it by proposing after midnight church service, as the snow was hissing all around us.

What are some of the ways you enjoy the holiday season?

Home…family…holidays…

By Caitlin Kelly

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Three little words.

Three loaded words.

Where will you be this holiday?

With (some of [the]) people you (most) love?

Or going solo, no matter the family fallout, avoiding people whose behaviors keep making you miserable — substance abuse, alcoholism, homophobia — maybe a trifecta!

Where is home for you now?

Is it where you grew up, living with your parents?

Or maybe a hotel or apartment on the road, thousands of miles from people who speak your language?

Which holiday, if any, are you celebrating?

Will you attend a Christmas Eve church service?

I know one person spending it on an island deep in the Pacific Ocean, on Tuvalu. (Merry Christmas, Devi!)

Another two women, one from Philadelphia, one from Dublin, are each heading to Chile.

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Christmas, with its rush of sentiment, shopping and song, can be a season of great joy, reuniting with people whose love and acceptance raise us up…or a time of intense loneliness.

At a time when people scurry home to their warm, well-lit refuges, some of us are mourning the loss of a partner, a child, a pet.

Some of us are battling serious illness. Some of us are seeking well-paid work and having little luck.

Anyone facing their first holiday season without a dearly loved one, as one recently widowed friend knows, will need the armor of light, (my favorite phrase), to carry them through.

I remember vividly the very first Christmas after my divorce. I’d been with my first husband for seven years and had left Canada, friends, family and career to follow him to the U.S.

I sat for the gorgeous solstice service offered each year by Paul Winter in the enormous New York City cathedral of St. John the Divine, with a dear friend and new beau beside me — loved, valued and deeply grateful not to be alone in a time that so celebrates togetherness.

Even gift-giving can be laden with emotion and anxiety.

I worked part-time in retail for 2.5 years. One man had no notion what his teenage daughter might enjoy while another practically begged me for help: “I need to find a present for a pain in the ass!

For many years, my family gave me “gifts” that were clearly last-minute afterthoughts or the little free samples that come with cosmetic purchases. Nor were my gifts to them graciously or happily accepted.

The season can so quickly sour!

The first Christmas I introduced my husband Jose to my loud, argumentative family was typical. As usual, we were expounding on politics and economics, each of us thumping the table for emphasis, voices raised and fingers pointed, certainty — as usual — thick in the air. We never discuss emotion or feelings, never simply ask, “How are you?”

Poor Jose!

He finally slapped the table in exasperation: “Everyone take a turn!”

Like fighting dogs sprayed with a garden hose, we paused for a minute — stunned. Then, on we went.

Welcome to the family!

Christmas Eve is also difficult for me, the night that, when I was 14, my mother had a nervous breakdown in the foreign country where we were living, leaving me and a friend in an unfamiliar city at midnight. Within a few weeks, I had left the country and her care, returning to live with my father and his girlfriend; I barely knew her and I hadn’t lived with him since my parents’ divorce seven years earlier.

I never lived with my mother again. We since spent some crazy Christmases — like the one in Cartagena, Colombia, (where the police stopped our cab and asked us to step out to be frisked), and later got sunstroke.

But in the past four years I haven’t seen or spoken to her.

Nor will I see my father and two half-brothers, spending their Christmas together in Canada; one brother nurses a long-held grudge against me so that’s it for family holidays that include me.

So the words family and home don’t make much sense to me in any traditional “home for the holidays” way.

Instead of focusing on lack, I’m choosing joy.

Rue Cler, around the corner from our borrowed apartment
Rue Cler, around the corner from our borrowed apartment

We’re now in Paris, a city filled with sweet memories for me, a city I lived in at 25 for a year while on a journalism fellowship. It was a year that changed my life and my career, and I’m still in touch with some of my fellow fellows decades later.

Paris for me — a Canadian living in New York — still feels like home for that reason, even after years between visits.

Jose is my family now. He proposed to me at midnight on Christmas Eve after church, standing beneath our church’s lych gate as snow hissed around us. He knew how sad that night had been for me and decided to re-brand it with a happier memory.

I hope — wherever you are and whoever you’re with and whatever you celebrate — you have a calm, loving, happy holiday!

Thank you all for the gift of your attention to Broadside. It means a lot!