Christmas is like Tomatoes: Why Holiday-Centered Grief is Different

I don’t like tomatoes.  When I say this, people who love tomatoes all have the same curious reaction: they instantly leap to the tomato’s defense with the question:

“How can you not like tomatoes?!?” 

The same level of protest would never be leveled against a preference for the colors goldenrod and periwinkle.  I wouldn’t be challenged if I said I prefer kayaking over going to the movies.  What is it about tomatoes that makes people so adamant that everyone must like them?  I wish I liked tomatoes–they’re pretty.  They look like they should taste good.  But they don’t; not to me or to my daughter.  A few years ago, I finally found a way to phrase my rebuttal so that people would understand:

“If they tasted to me the way they taste to you, I’m sure I’d love them.  If they tasted the same way to you that they taste to me, you wouldn’t like them, either.” 

“The Holidays” is another sacred cow.  When I say that I don’t celebrate anything at this time of year–“These aren’t my holidays”–I’m not allowed to go my way unmolested.

“What?  Why don’t you like Christmas?”
The strange thing is, people who ask this question don’t generally want to know the answer.  It’s as if their primary reason for asking is to prove me wrong; nothing could possibly make someone dislike the holiday season, could it?  This attitude is so pervasive that, now that I’ve moved to a community that is more inclusive of holidays other than Christmas, I’m asked, “Why don’t you celebrate Solstice?  It’s not Christmas.”  You must celebrate something. 

If you really want to know, here goes:  When I was a child, my mother worked as a nurse on night-shift.  My brother and I were left alone at night from the time I was three years old, and because she could make extra money working on Christmas Eve and Christmas, she always worked those two nights.  She’d come home and put the presents under the tree before we woke up, and we would open them and have the typical happy Christmas morning.

Then she went to bed, leaving my brother and I alone.  All day.  Every year.  One of my most vivid memories of Christmas Day, when I was nine years old, was when I had received the one gift I had most hoped for–a set of toy horses and a barn and tractor–and was playing with them on the kitchen floor.  At some point, I stopped trying, and just sat and stared at them, bleakly wondering how to get my toys to love me.

I didn’t really understand how profoundly my childhood experiences had affected me until my daughter was three years old, and I got angry with her as she pushed her new plastic training-bike around the block on Christmas afternoon.  “Wow,” I realized, “I really get pretty grumpy on Christmas Day.”

After a few years, I saw how little control I had over my deep Christmas funk, and started making a practice of sending my daughter to stay with her father or my other family members on Christmas.  She wouldn’t have her mother for the holidays, but she would at least have the holidays–bright, positive memories with family, rather than a repetition of the bleak unhappiness I had experienced.

“Just reclaim the holiday!”
This is the usual counter-attack (as people really do subtly seem to feel they’re under attack), and perhaps if it was just the childhood experience I’ve described, I might eventually have done so.

But wait, folks, there’s more! 

In August of 2001. my stepfather committed suicide.  My mother fell apart and reached out to me for support–in the worst possible way.  In the years that followed, I figured out that she could probably be diagnosed as either a sociopath or someone with Borderline Personality Disorder.  It fits all the behaviors I experienced in childhood; behaviors that had never really stopped, but had been transferred to the man she married shortly after I moved out of the house.  When he died, the full suite of manipulation and cruelty was directed at me once again.

The events of Christmas, 2001, were horrible when I went through them the first time; I am not especially eager to go back there even in memory.  Suffice it to say, one of the behaviors of people with Borderline Personality Disorder is self-mutilation, often by cutting themselves.  When my six year-old daughter and I arrived home for Christmas that year, we walked in on my mother, stoned on Xanax, wearing the same filthy nightgown she’d been wearing for days, cutting her arms with a scalpel.

I was horrified, paralyzed, angry that my daughter had been exposed to this scene.  She had known we were coming, and this was the tableau she’d decided should be waiting to greet us?  It was the beginning of a five-year process of distancing myself from my mother.  I have not seen her since 2006, and do not wish to until I see her in her coffin.  Every time I think of maybe relenting and getting in contact with her again, I tailspin into a panic-attack.

Does anyone really want to hear that story?  “Why don’t you like Christmas?” they ask, as if the explanation was as simple as the reason I don’t care for tomatoes.  I no longer consent to provide an explanation to anyone but my closest friends.  Whether I explain a little, or a lot, there is still one more salvo in their arsenal.

“Just reclaim the holiday!”
Yes.  I get it.  Your Christmases always ended with your drunken Uncle Billy getting into fights with your dad.  Your parents spent too much money they didn’t have and then fought over it all through the month of January.  Or they didn’t have enough money to buy real presents, and you got socks one year instead of the LEGO set you’d had your heart set on.  You decided you were never going to have that sort of Christmas, and you don’t.  You and your spouse went to great lengths to create the perfect holiday for your kids.  Hurrah for you!  That’s wonderful.

It’s also not the same thing.

Trauma around the holidays is just different.  As a child being severely neglected from an early age, I was always acutely aware of the parenting other people had, that I never did.  All year ’round I watched as fathers showed their kids how to kick a soccer-ball, mothers picked their kids up from school and cooked them dinner in the evening, other children arrived at school in clean, neat clothing that their mothers had inspected before allowing them out the door.  My brother started getting me up and off to school in the morning when he was seven years old, and I five.  We came home to a house that was always cold, always empty.  There was no after-school snack or dinner; sometimes, because our mother ate at work, she seemed to forget that we needed food at all.

My childhood was defined by absence; I looked at other families with something like envy, envy that was really desperate hunger and loneliness.  At no time was that loneliness more profound than during the holidays.  When school let out for two weeks in December, we looked forward to two weeks of freedom; and two weeks of watching people on our street come and go to family dinners and holiday parties, while no such happy events would ever come to our cold house.

Another compounding effect was the loss of what little human contact I had during the rest of the year.  I usually spent as much time as I could around other families; my best friend had the unbelievable wealth of both mother and father, as well as 4 siblings.  On occasion, I was even invited to eat dinner with them, though my mother pressured me to decline, lest she be thought to be a bad mother who didn’t feed her children.  But come holiday events, this relief was not available.  Another rule my mother drilled into us: Never disturb other families during the holidays.  At the times when our losses were more obvious than ever, we were forbidden to seek any solace from the few who might have made the pain less severe. 

As each morning of holiday break dawned, fresh new snow more often than not laying on the ground, and I could only look out the window at the bright lights in the houses across the street, resentful of the busy motion of family and food and presents.

“Just reclaim the holiday!” 
Because other people like tomatoes, I should like them.  Despite the evidence of my taste-buds, despite discovering that tomatoes actually cause my joints to swell and hurt, I should like and eat raw tomatoes, because Other People.  The question I have is, why?  Why is it so important that I not let sleeping dogs lie, leave my memories un-triggered and sleeping where I last left them (in my therapist’s office), and have a perfectly normal December 25th when I sleep in, clean the house, read a book, and ignore everything and everyone that might tear open old wounds?

Everyone has bad memories, unhappy anniversaries.  The anniversary of a divorce; the day a beloved parent died; the return of that quiet, unremarked-upon day the sad mother of a stillborn child never ceases to remember.

Holiday trauma is different.  The pain itself may be greater or smaller than other injuries, but the setting compounds it, unleashing a complex stew of grief and loneliness.  What’s worse than being the one person who is miserable in a room full of people having the time of their lives?  It’s like dying of a gunshot to the stomach while all around you, everyone is laughing, talking,  drinking martinis, and asking you to get yourself up off the floor and join the party.

If my childhood experiences of Christmas were like the siege of Leningrad, then my mother’s cutting in 2001 was Hiroshima, Nagasaki.  I doubt anyone told the radiation-poisoned survivors to “reclaim” the scarred, glassy ground from which they were rescued.  Let others heal the land and build new buildings; the Hibakusha need every ounce of their energy just to survive their wounds.

If someone tells you they don’t celebrate these holidays, don’t like Christmas, or if you notice that they clam up whenever the subject arises, please consider that they have their reasons–and their reasons are valid.  Some people don’t like tomatoes, and that actually is okay.  You can still enjoy your tomatoes; it’s nothing personal.  And please, give us an out: instead of “What? Why don’t you like Christmas!?” how about saying, to them as well as reminding yourself:

“Yeah, that’s okay.  Not everyone likes the holidays.  If I had lived your life, I wouldn’t like them either.” 

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One thought on “Christmas is like Tomatoes: Why Holiday-Centered Grief is Different

  1. My Dear Wolf, what a fabulous essay! I feel your pain. I’m waiting for “the holidays” to be OVER!! And working retail in it doesn’t help, all of us at Stein’s can’t wait for it to be over. There is so much I could say about “the happiest time of the year” but it is hard to put it into words. I had great Christmas’ as a kid and into my teens and early 20’s. But that set me up for the “why do I have this empty feeling at holiday time” as a grown adult??? The holiday is so over blown and life is hard. At holiday time, I should miraculously morf into this happier, than happy person where everything is just so wonderful that I’m gonna burst at the seams and I feel so good that “my savior” has saved me from all my sins and he was born and everything is just so fantastic and I’m gonna go out and buy a lot of presents for everybody and everyone else is just so happy and merry and it’s snowing and everybody is riding around in horse drawn sleighs, bells a jingling and there is heavenly singing and we hear angels and the clouds part, the sun shines down and our life is just gonna be real spiffy forever and ever!!

    I wake up every day in pain. I fight an anxiety disorder. I was manipulated and put down as a child, and that has affected almost every decision I’ve ever made. Only now do I understand it at age 59 and decades of self introspection. Life is hard!

    Love you Wolf!

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