When the Holidays Aren’t Really Your Thing

by Megan Reynolds

When you tell people that you don’t like Christmas, they automatically think you’re a monster. “Everyone likes Christmas!” they say, their eyes wide as they slowly step back. “What could you possibly not like about Christmas! Its the best time of the year!” I am usually prepared with a laundry list of reasons why Christmas — or any holiday, really — isn’t my thing. I find that rattling this off incenses them further. Usually, these conversations happen at various holiday events, all of which I attend not because I care deeply about the season, but because I love a good party. I shrug in an attempt at explanation, and try, very hard, to change the subject.

Christmas is a weird time of year, full of stress and joy and financial worry. Christmas means spending time with family, sure, but it also feels like enforced over-spending, harried shoppers Sephora after work, clutching armfuls of gift sets. A gift is a wonderful thing to give and a wonderful thing to receive, but I think it’s much more special when it’s spontaneous. A gift for a friend, purchased because you saw it in a store and thought they would like it is nice. It showcases a generosity of spirit and a kindness that the holiday season, with its constant sales and flashing lights, lacks. Christmas gifts are purchased often out of habit. It’s December, there are sales, you will have to go home and spend time with your family, and they will have bought you socks and maybe a bathrobe. You will give them something that you think they need, but really probably already have because they are your parents, and ostensibly, can buy whatever it is they need or want for themselves. So, we buy things to give at this pre-ordained time, because it is customary. These things accumulate in corners of empty houses, gathering dust, still in the plastic. These things are eventually thrown out, and room is made for new things.

I can’t remember when we stopped having a Christmas tree. There’s no clear marker in my mind of when we went from actually celebrating the holiday to not really handling it at all. It must have been in elementary school. We moved from one big house to a medium-sized house to the smallest house, and there really wasn’t room for a proper tree. The explosion of wrapped boxes and ribbons and bows that you kind of have to keep up for little kids when they still believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy ended early for us. We stopped doing presents, maybe because we couldn’t afford it, or maybe because it felt like too much. Every Christmas, we’d get a new book, or two, and spend the rest of the day reading companionably in silence in the same room. It is still my favorite way to pass the time.

The first Christmas we spent with my father’s new wife, it was clear that things were going to be very different. For starters, there was a tree, twinkling and laden with breakable ornaments, and those old fashioned lights with the glass bulbs — beautiful, but impractical. There was an angel for the top of the tree, which my father accidentally sat on before it was placed. The next 45 minutes were very, very tense. My sister and I were implored to help decorate the tree, and we gamely participated because my father loved this woman, and even though we really, really didn’t want to, it seemed like we should to prove that we are good children. We were urged to go to midnight mass, to sing carols, to do holiday things that were not a part of our own tradition, and we did as much as we could with neutral faces and game smiles.

That first year, the gift-giving expectations were astronomical. Gifts were now a requirement. Buying something for someone you love and care about is difficult. Buying something for someone you met three months ago and is deeply invested in a holiday that you don’t care about is nearly impossible. The first year, we went to the MOMA Design Store on a busy Saturday in the thick of the holiday season and picked out what we were told to purchase: a ludicrously expensive Toord Boontje paper cutout curtain that was opened with much fanfare and excitement, but did not surface in the house for at least three years. The next Christmas, we got dessert plates, picked out at Anthropologie, and they were hidden somewhere far in the depths of the cupboard, only trotted out for our visits as if we were visiting dignitaries or heads of state. That whole weekend, my sister and I ate cheese and crackers off of them, while watching television.

The last big present we bought my father’s wife was a blanket — a big, soft throw from a fancy home goods store in Williamsburg. When folded, it was the size of one of our suitcases, and we lugged it stuffed in a bag full of tissue paper, on the train and then all the way home. We really thought we knocked it out of the park with this one; in a house that was now full of textiles and soft things, blankets and throw pillows, we thought this was a practical yet thoughtful gift. It lives folded, in a chest in the TV room, and I imagine before my father picks my sister and I up from the train station when we come home to visit, he remembers to remove it and leave it out for us, to see that our efforts were not in vain.

Because I am not an entirely miserly human being, my sisters and I have co-opted the holiday for ourselves. A couple years back, we established a Sister Secret Santa, making it so that we each have something to open and exclaim about on that day. Gift lists are exchanged, presents are wrapped and opened, and there are only a few disappointments. We set price limits, and we usually get what we want. We spend the holiday together, and then my sister Jenny and I go to see our father upstate. It is a new tradition, and it is solely ours.

Megan Reynolds lives in New York.

Photo: Jonathan Blackwell

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