Q: I have two problems centering around the coming holidays.
Since my mother's death 11 years ago in a traffic accident, our family's traditional gathering on Christmas Eve has become a tense, overly stressful evening for my two sisters, my brother and me, as well as for our spouses and our father. (He is now in his early 70s and claims that since my mother has been gone Christmas has meant nothing to him, outside of seeing his children and grandchildren.)
We have made many changes. We rotate the location, we've tried starting earlier and starting later, going to church and not going to church, and still the evening is filled with tension. We're not having a totally awful time, but we don't seem to feel anything special. ... This year I suggested moving it to another evening, to maybe take off some pressure, but that idea was totally shot down. Any suggestions?
Also, what do you do at Christmas if you don't have children? My husband and I do not have children, and with that being the No. 1 theme, we tend to have to fend for ourselves on Christmas Day. We would like to start to do something that would be ours and ours alone, something very personal, warm and sincere. Actually, we're quite content with our lives, so it doesn't have to include children. -- J.C., Berkley, Mich.
A: Neither of your holiday problems is unique. In a society filled with all kinds of families -- scattered, broken, blended, extended -- the logistics of getting together for special celebrations grow more and more complicated, as do the emotions that accompany holiday celebrations.
One reason for the tension is that the expectations we bring along are part of any big occasion. We assume that special times have to produce very special feelings. When the occasion arrives and we find that we're the same people feeling even more exhausted than usual or more aware than usual of missing loved ones, we tend to think the celebration has been a failure.
Christmas Eve can be a wonderful time to get together. But especially for families with children, it can also be one of the most exhausting nights of the year. Combine that with the lingering sadness of remembering past Christmases with your mother and it's no big surprise that you find less joy and good family fellowship in these occasions than you hope for.
Your idea of moving the gathering to another evening -- perhaps the the weekend before or after Christmas -- is a good one. Perhaps you and your father can gradually nudge your siblings toward that idea. Making separate plans this year would be a dramatic way to do that, but you should take care to smooth out any hard feelings that may crop up.
As you know, family members feel strongly about traditions. But every tradition had a first time, and it's good to remember that the family gathering itself -- not the specific time or place -- is the truly important part.
As to your own Christmas Day traditions, the possibilities are limited only by your imagination. Some couples use the occasion for a special trip. Others make a tradition of having Christmas dinner at a favorite restaurant. Some people take time to serve at a soup kitchen or visit a nursing home or hospital.
Another idea is to produce your own Christmas dinner and begin 2 2TC a practice of inviting any of your friends and acquaintances who don't have other plans.
Make it the festive, happy occasion you want it to be, and I bet you'll soon find your Christmas dinner to be a meaningful tradition for you and those you invite. After all, Christmas is about sharing, and it sounds as if you have plenty of Christmas spirit to share.
*Send your comments and questions about death and dying to Sara Engram, Mortal Matters, The Evening Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278.
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