I've long had an uneasy relationship with Christmas. When I was eighteen, my stepsister died on Christmas day. Of course, everything about that one sentence story is horrible. It's horrible to be a college freshman and lose a sibling (yes, a stepsister is a sibling) to cancer; it's awful when a 24 year old dies for any reason; and when someone you love dies on Christmas Day, the holiday becomes forever altered.
But--to be honest--the real misery of that day for me didn't lie in the loss. Maybe if she'd been my "real" sister and not my stepsister, I would have been consumed only by grief. It would have been a searing grief like that I watched my stepfather endure. But instead of pure grief, I experienced grief complicated by divorce. I wanted more than anything to save my stepfather from the misery of loss, and the helplessness that any child would've felt in that situation was complicated by the fact that I wasn't his real daughter. Was it a help that besides my stepbrother, he still had me--a stepdaughter? I wasn't even sure I had a "right" to feel as sad as I did. I was "just" a step-sister, my spot in the grieving hierarchy was ill-defined. If people don't know what to say when someone dies, they certainly don't know what to say to a teenager who's lost her stepsister.
And while the grief from losing my sister and that Christmas eventually faded, Christmas has continued to be a holiday of a mixed grill of feelings, a state which became more pronounced seven years ago when I got divorced. I'm not sure why I was so naïve that Christmas after divorce would likely mean celebrating just every other year with my kids. Maybe because I didn't know that many divorced people then (even though the divorce rate is 50 percent, when you're going through a divorce, you can be certain that everyone in your immediate circle will be not just married but happily married) or because there'd been no animal known as the "parenting plan" when my parents got divorced. When my parents got divorced, they split the two kids--my mom got me and my dad moved to Mexico with my sister. There was no plan for how we were to visit with the noncustodial parents. But it was 1962 when they divorced. The only time the divorce rate had been lower that century was in 1942. It's hard to divorce someone when they're away getting killed.
The thing about divorce is that the relationship continues. You have good years, and you have bad. On the bad years, my ex and I have each constructed our own Christmases for our two daughters--one on the 25th and the other on the 26th. On good years, we've joined forces and had one present-opening celebration at the designated parent's house. This year, I'm happy to report, is a good year. On Christmas morning, I will drive over to my ex's on Christmas morning and watch my kids open their gifts on the day the rest of the world calls Christmas and not on the day I grew up calling Boxing Day.
But good years and bad, I've had to figure out how to spend the rest of December 25th on the years I don't have my kids. Clean the house? (too pathetic) Exercise? (gyms are closed).Work? (no!). Sometimes people have invited me to join in their family celebrations. You don't have to do that too often to know that's not exactly the fast lane to feeling good about life. For a few years, I've longed to be transported for a few hours to a world where Christmas doesn't exist (often this fantasy involves a Polynesian island) and then a few years ago, I found one.
I was whining to my friend Nicole about how the kids were going to be at their dad's for Christmas. It was a "bad" year so I wouldn't be seeing them until the 26th. She held up her hand in a stop sign gesture. "Stop! That's it. You're doing Jewish Christmas with me."
"Jewish Christmas?" (Excuse for ignorance: I grew up in a part of Canada where English-Irish-Scottish was just about it).
"We go to the movies and eat Chinese food."
She might as well have said, "We're flying to Tahiti for the day!"
That Christmas we went to the International District, and I had the best Chinese food of my life. There was a dish of beef, ginger, and green beans and a mountain of noodles. The restaurant was full! (So many divorced people!) Then, we were off to the movies. We shared a bag of popcorn through a romantic comedy so bad that we were mouthing the predictable next lines and then we scampered off to another movie!
Except for all the "good year" Christmases and the Christmases when I was too young to know what loss was, this Christmas was the best Christmas ever. And from that day forward, all my even-year Christmases became Jewish Christmases. Pass the soy sauce, please!
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