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The Christmas Tightrope Of Obligation And Desire, Or, Saturday Morning at 9:04am

I was thinking about Christmas, which, for those of us who celebrate, is imminent. (Not immanent. By correctness shall ye know I’m in High WASP mode albeit recovering.)

There’s this photograph, perhaps the only one we have of my family-of-origin Christmases, but certainly the only one that’s been framed and kept. My littlest sister, all WASP toddler barely-haired, footie pajama-ed, reaches for an ornament.

I remember that Christmas, coincidentally, because with the fourth sibling our heap of presents grew right out from under the tree. And yet the photo feels more sad to me than abundant. I was trying to figure out why, and I thought, maybe because then, at 10, I wanted to be little? But no. How can I know what I felt then? How can any of us know? And what difference, really, does it make?

Nostalgia can be a spiteful mistress.

I’ve also been scolding myself, in a laughing sort of way, for making To Do lists. Wrap Presents. Hang Lights. This is the time of life to spin the tightrope between obligation and desire, even as we walk it. Slippered footstep by slippered footstep, city lights below as though we’re flying home.

I hope you have read Une Femme’s post on her December.

This is also the time, at least as I live it, to keep trying for a kind sort of authenticity. When we’re young, it’s hard. We have so little perspective on ourselves it takes all our capacity just to be. When we’re older, we’re more able, but at the same time we’ve rolled ourselves up in a family and historic self that may resist new truths.

Here’s the thing. In this light, traditions highlight change rather than continuity. No nostalgia. Change towards the people we want to be, living in the relationships we want to have. I guess that’s not a High WASP sentiment at all, especially since High WASPs don’t believe in sentiment and rarely talk about relationships.


Mater wrote a lovely post on clearing out old Christmas stuffs. I’ve not thrown anything away. Still have the plaster figurines of kings, silver ornaments and felt elves. But as my son helps take down the boxes, and I decide to tie new red gingham bows, I think about how relationships change.

That littlest sister and I had dinner atop a hotel in Los Angeles, a few months back. Now she has a new job. I am immensely proud and I no longer want to be little, if I ever did. Put it this way. I am desentimentalizing any sadness I might have felt towards my baby sister. And making up words, apparently. High WASPs would rather invent them than use those in existence incorrectly.

Most importantly, I work now on seeing my adult children for who they are. I work on a kind authenticity in how I am to them. Maybe I’m not alone, maybe many of us are doing similarly. How will our children know us, their mothers, as they grow up and we grow old? Traditions can serve as little lights that click on, quietly, colored, as we pass.

One of my goofy glass Christmas trees broke. N’importe. I pounded a brass nail into my newly black front door. N’importe. I hung the wreath tied with a straggly red gingham ribbon bow. OK, important. Welcome home.

35 Responses

  1. Lovely post, Lisa. Funny how those old photographs can make us feel sad, even when they’re photos of a happy time, even when we’re happy now. Makes me think of the comment made to me by a waitress in Edinburgh, Scotland when I told her I had never eaten black pudding… “Weird in’it?” Nostalgia… weird in’it?
    Have a good holiday, Lisa. We’re getting into the Christmas spirit today… we’ve finally a dusting of snow on the ground! Yah!!!

  2. “Nostalgia can be a spiteful mistress.” Oh, isn’t that the truth? I find that the more I can let go of nostalgia (especially around holidays), the happier I am. And yes, resisting the evolution of traditions over the years is a sure formula for disappointment and frustration.

  3. Very insightful. The glow of nostalgia always ends up tarnished to me. Our family relationships are so fluid, there’s massively different traditions every year. I’m happiest if I just roll with it.

  4. Tightrope,indeed
    To be authentic to yourself (and it changes),to make your dearest happy (and it changes) and to be happy…
    Memories lie in the eyes of beholder,as the beauty,but is it important to save them all? Bad too? All of them?
    Some of traditions are used and comercialized to the bone and it makes me so sad, I have to change,reinvent,make my own,new,pure as fresh snow…..
    Letting go makes space for new-feelings,things,people,beginnings,mother-grown up children’s relations,Christmases…who knows!
    Beautiful,nostalgic post!

  5. I have always celebrated Christmas, although not in the religious sense. Through my parent’s divorce, mine own, children marrying and having in-laws, grandchildren in the picture – it’s all had to be fluid, which I resented for quite awhile. I won’t say I don’t at all anymore, but I have learned to roll with it in a more graceful way I hope. I both look forward to it, enjoy it, and also breathe a sigh of relief when it’s over.

    1. @Kathy, “I both look forward to it, enjoy it, and also breathe a sigh of relief when it’s over.” I can’t imagine a more honest or a better answer.

  6. Thank you Lisa, for writing this blog.

    “Christmas Tightrope” is a perfect description of how we perfectionists feel this time of year.

    I’ve been feeling bad because I haven’t done anything yet about Christmas this year – I haven’t bought one gift or prepared in any way for the house full of house guests that will start arriving on Monday.

    Life has been crazy lately, we’ve been running all over the place – by necessity, not for fun. When I wake up at night to pee I have to first remember where I am.

    Is it possible to just have a “very nice” Christmas, and to just enjoy the company of the people you love?

    1. @Diane, You are welcome. Thank you very much for reading. And yes, it’s possible, I’m sure it is, as long as we are ready to let the too difficult go.

  7. It is important to me that our family Christmas celebration be authentic. And, I also realize that this authenticity is different for each member of the family. Since I am mostly in charge (since I do most all of the preparations), I have to admit that the celebration is mostly my vision. I resent those times when I bend to the visions of others (which means very formal meals which I find stuffy) and I am most happy when I hue to my own ideas (casual and comfortable). I always find the whole season somewhat stressful as there are a lot of expectations. It is never all that easy–even though that is my goal.

  8. Thank you for the generous mention in a beautiful post! We so often seem to forget that half the etymology of “nostalgia” points directly at pain; it’s a dangerous retrospection! The letting go is not always easy, but with my “kids” now teetering toward their 5th decade–what?! But truly, the eldest hits 40 next year!–it’s better to choose it than to wait for it to be foisted. And there is so much joy in watching the traditions translated anew, if we relinquish our grip on the reins and trust those we’ve raised to do what we surely raised them towards…

  9. What a thought-provoking and in many ways touching post. May I add a couple of my own thoughts?

    Nostalgia is a mug’s game: almost always falsifying and self-indulgent. But such fun to wallow in from time to time! Christmas brings it out so easily, and we just have to let it roll over us, appreciate what we can, and then move on.

    The conclusion to your penultimate paragraph is beautiful beyond compare: “Traditions can serve as little lights that click on, quietly, colored, as we pass.”

    Perfectly thought, perfectly expressed. Thank you.

    1. @victoire, Thank you. I think you are right, on second thought. If one is ever to wallow in the mug’s game, Christmas is probably the time. I especially thank you for noting my attempts at writing. Perhaps having a very good storyteller as a babysitter stuck;). Happy holidays to you, Victoire!

  10. About 10 years ago as I watched presents being torn open, tossed aside and being asked where the next present was by both my grandchildren and great nieces & nephews, the spouse and I decided not to support the commercialization of Christmas. Now we go to the beach for Christmas week which removes the stress of family Christmas. Best present we ever gave ourselves! And this way we are also able to help more directly through the year by helping with children’s camp costs and other events. Win, win – at least for us.

  11. Traditions seem to be changing in our family…and I am just going with the flow trying not to get in a knot.
    I understand the reasons behind the changes and know in my heart that I must not be greedy and needy!
    Seems like this is happening to many of us as our children have become adults and are carving out traditions with their new families.
    I’d love to see a picture of that wreath on your front door…I bet the red bow really shouts out a warm welcome!

    1. @Bungalow Hostess, I’ll work on a photo. I agree, we shouldn’t be greedy. But even mothers and grandmothers get to be needy sometimes, right? The answer has to be yes or I’m in trouble!

  12. What a wonderful post Lisa. I think many of us find ourselves in the same place. We want to be authentic and to be seen as our authentic selves and as honoring the authenticity of others. It’s important, but not always easy. Thank you for your words here.

  13. My high wasp husband relishes the Christmas season. I do not, but I relish him. I make this my gift to him. I bake, decorate, wrap, donate, volunteer and host gatherings. People respond to my efforts with gratitude since many dread the pressures of the season. Recently my husband shared that his parents imbied excessively during the holiday season, more than the usual nightly cocktails. He has memories of festive dinner parties with the children outside ice skating left to their own devices. I laughed and realized that my non-drinking lifestyle explains my holiday angst. January 2nd becomes the most joyful day for me when I can enjoy the serenity of winter. I have found that ignoring the madness of consumerism is impossible and by taking charge I can direct the style and simplicity. Friends and family that have died all too soon would love to have had one more or many more Christmas days spent in the company of others. I gift my husband the fanfare but silently dedicate the emotions of peace to my departed friends. Warmest Wishes, Lynn

  14. Beautiful, touching and true.

    Also wanted to take the opportunity to wish you and yours a lovely Christmas together. May 2016 be for you all what you wish it to be.

    Much love as always

    SSG xxx

  15. So glad I found you ,Lisa. Your writing sparkles and your insights are treasures. Merry Christmas to you and the best of everything in 2016!

  16. I do it all for my children and grandchild. It’s tradition and traditions are important to a family. However, afterwards I am exhausted and very ,very happy it is over. I love the stillness of winter. It is hauntingly beautiful and my reward for having “done” the holidays.

  17. We are all a culmination of the past, present and future. For better or worse, the best we can do is make the best of it and move forward. Change is a given. It is hard sometimes. I find looking for the good and working to having a great Christmas is in my best interest. So this is how I proceed. So far so good. Enjoy – Susan

  18. Nostalgia is such a tangled path, as we always twist in on ourselves. Best just to muddle forward, with only brief peeks back, lest we wander down unintended rabbit holes of our own making. I think I used to want Christmas to be something I felt I had always wanted but missed. Then I learned to find it where it is. This Christmas is hard because it is different, or maybe it is easier because it is different. There can be no weight of tradition when you are outside of tradition. I’m all for making up words and embracing joy where you find it.

  19. I am still pondering WHY that photo makes YOU sad…………….I think I am sad too when I look at old photos.A time gone by never to RETURN.
    MERRY CHRISTMAS LISA………………may the good times ROLL.

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