12/30/2013 04:21 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

At the Top of My Lungs: The Big C


Jennifer decorating shortbreads, 1967

"I'm dreaming of a white Christmas. But if the white runs out I'll drink the red." -- Seen on a cocktail napkin, source unknown.

Intense images and emotions fill my head and my heart when I think of, "The Big C."

Angst and apprehension. Fear, frustration and fatigue. Circumstances that bring out the best, and the worst.

I'm talking, of course, about Christmas.

The most memorable Christmas display I ever saw was in a small department store in rural Japan. It was Santa on a cross.

While it made me laugh, it illustrated how confusing the holidays can be, and that they can mean such varied things to different people. Also, that each of us has a cross to bear, even old Kris Kringle.

For many years Christmas made me sad. It can be a brutal season for a single person. I'd had too many silent nights, too many holidays alone under the mistletoe with no one to deck my halls or jingle my bells.

But those are ghosts of Christmas past. Last year at this time I had a new husband, new family, new home, warmly lit and replete with the visceral holiday smells of mulled cider and fresh pine. On the night of December 26, Harlan and I contentedly climbed the stairs as people we love slept all around us. In hushed tones we reviewed the events of the day as he massaged my neck and shoulders. His hands froze when, for the first time, he felt the pea-sized knot at my throat. Last Christmas I got a lump of cancer.

Now, 'tis the season again. As we put lights on our house and decorate our tree, every shiny ball or glittery decoration has huge import to me, but I don't know if it's a talisman against danger or a harbinger of bad tidings to come. I'm not usually superstitious, but this year I guess I am.

While decorating our tree my six year-old step-daughter, Eloise, asked me what Christmas is really about. I felt as stymied as Maureen O'Hara in Miracle on 34th Street, when Natalie Wood asks if there truly is a Santa Claus. While I believe in being candid with kids, I couldn't look into Eloise's hopeful little face and grumble that it's all about marketing. I'm not a religious person so I considered it best not to go down that path, and I didn't want to spout platitudes. I thought hard about how to answer Eloise gently, honestly.

As with most of life's great questions, I found the answer in a Broadway show tune. Ironically, I think the essence of what the holidays mean to me is best summed up by Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof: "Tradition!"

There's a peace that comes from repeating familiar acts, even and especially when life goes off the rails. I find this when gently unwrapping generations of family ornaments, kneading dough for my Grandma Mac's shortbread cookies, baking my Grandma Anna's kugel, or showing Eloise how to make snowflakes that sparkle while listening to the old holiday songs.

Our traditions are connective tissue to the past, and to the future. Knowing that I am part of this continuum, that the little mark I leave may carry on, helps me to face whatever may come with clarity, calm and courage. Courage. That's "The Big C" I want for Christmas, and this year the bigger the better.

This column originally appeared on For more by Jennifer Glass, click here. "Like" Jennifer's Facebook page here. See her Fear.Less. video here.