“Every holiday I feel that depression/From all of this pressure/And maybe it’s all worth it just to see if we can outrun it/And I look at you across the room/Your eyes like sinking balloons/Merry Christmas, babe, I hope we make it through”
-Mt. Joy, “Every Holiday”
“So we sing carols softly/As sweet as we know/A prayer that our burdens will lift as we go/Like young love still waiting under mistletoe/We’ll welcome December with tireless hope”
-Sleeping at Last, “Snow”
“And even if it’s Christmas/Could we just pretend for a bit/That everything we went through/Was someone else’s carpenter kiss?”
-Sufjan Stevens, “Lonely Man of Winter”
My aunt nears the end of her Christmas dinner prayer, and her voice catches like a sweater on metal fencing. Both she and my mom fight tears when they mention they are grateful for the family gathered here today, noting the losses. Their mother. My father’s mother. Others.
I find the holidays a string of dichotomies—deep sorrow, abundant joy; thick gloom, perseverant sun; dark night, dainty lights. I’ve realized that my favorite holiday songs (including those above) heed this theme. Everything magical about the holidays is tinged with grief when you have lost the people you’d want to share it with. Whether it is by death or merely separation—which, at times, is worse—this loss becomes most poignant around the holidays. You don’t tend to notice that it is September 20 and your grandmother is not waiting to tie the back of your dress like she used to, but her empty seat at the Christmas table is piercing. To go through Monday not in love is unremarkable, but it hits midnight on New Years’ Eve and you swear you can feel the loneliness as though it is a physical sensation. And this is exhausting because all the while you are flooded with an entire zeitgeist’s worth of unrealistic expectations for holidays, which kindly force upon you a crippling romanticism that always leaves you empty-handed.
If these phenomena are entirely foreign to you, I heavily congratulate you on your good fortune. But if you have known these hurts, I’d like to emphasize that you are in good company.
I haven’t decided what this means for us, and I’m not sure whether it is harmful or healing to spend time in the grief, but I do know that altogether it has become something for which I am grateful. Rather than spending my holiday completely in elation and moving through it with nonchalance, the reminder of what and whom I’ve lost instructs me fiercely to hold on tight. Since I was a kid, I’ve practiced alternating between a deep study of a moment I want to remember and closing my eyes to know how precisely I have known it. I continue this looking and closing until I have at least grasped a few details I can bring back without the scene being there anymore.
I’ve done this with the newer family members that my grandmothers will never know. I look at them a little longer, hold their chubby hands a little tighter, as though I am giving my grandmothers a turn. I return to memories of past romances, both others’ and my own, confident that they have given something to the holidays that does not leave when they do.
So yes, the holidays welcome a unique kind of desperation, a special breed of pain. For all the anticipation and all the joy, we recognize that there will always be fewer and then more people with whom to share it. December especially seems to be equal parts euphoria and aching. But a complicated relationship with the holidays provides an invaluable perspective on what it means to be human. Our complicated emotion is our power to live deeply. This itself may be an overplayed, oversold pop-culture motif, but that does not make it untrue.
Contact Malia Mendez at mjm2000 ‘at’ stanford.edu.