Thursday, December 15, 2005

Where's my happy switch?

The PC police have sensitized us on the issue of offending Jews, Muslims and atheists, among others, as we celebrate the Christmas holiday. To use a phrase that will date me, we’ve had our consciousness raised.

But the celebration of Christmas is “offensive” to another group of people for completely different reasons. Offensive isn’t quite the right word, but it’ll do.

The Christmas season is really hard on the depressed and grieving among us. Count me in. This time of year, I’m not very merry. Being wished a Merry Christmas — or a Happy Holiday for that matter — only reminds me of the hole in my heart. I force myself to go through the motions of the holiday, trying my best to continue our family traditions “for the sake of the children” but it’s hollow. I feel like a fake.

And a failure. I struggle with my faith, and the past couple of years, when Christmas rolls around, I’m reminded of my spiritual shortcomings. If I had a strong faith, I wouldn’t be depressed, I chastise myself. If I were focused on the true meaning of the season, I’d be joyful, not down.

I wish we humans came equipped with a happy switch.

Some of my holiday tsouris is cultural. As a first generation Italian-American, my childhood was steeped in the cultural traditions of the “old country.” My entire extended family lived within a 10-block radius of my great-grandmother’s house in Brooklyn, until my parents wound up settling our family in Coram — “in the middle of nowhere.”

We saw each other, well, constantly. Family was our social network. Holidays were spent together — always. Great aunts and uncles, their children and their children’s families crowded together in my great-grandmother’s home on Christmas Eve for a traditional fish dinner, zuppa di pesci. Holidays were boisterous at “Big Grandma’s” — at 5’7” she “towered” over her husband in the turn-of-the-century wedding picture that hung in a place of honor in her living room. My great-grandfather died before I was born, but Big Grandma was the center of my mother’s extended family until she passed away when I was 14.

Our move to Coram marked the beginning of The Scattering. My parents’ generation left that one-square-mile “village” in Brooklyn for the suburbs. But they returned with their children for holiday gatherings. After Big Grandma died, my mother’s parents’ home became holiday central for us. Nana gave up the Christmas gig the year my grandfather died, 1975, and Christmas gatherings after that took place at my Aunt Evy’s home in Rocky Point. It was brand new and huge, an ideal place for parties of every kind. And she was the embodiment of gracious entertaining. Martha Stewart has nothin’ on my Aunt Ev. Nana would come for an extended holiday stay, and Aunt Evy’s kitchen became a bakery for a few weeks before Christmas. The aroma of their confections baking mixed sweetly with the evergreen scent of her Christmas tree and the logs burning in the fireplace — until all the shellfish cooking on Christmas Eve fouled the air!

Nana’s five children, their spouses, their children and grandchildren all gathered at Aunt Evy’s house for Christmas. That’s where my own daughters got a little taste of the family holidays I knew as a child. But after Nana passed away in 1998, my aunt and uncle moved to Florida, and Christmas changed. There were no more huge, noisy family gatherings. We still made the Christmas Eve fish dinner, but there weren’t 20 of us seated around a long dining room table to share it.

It was on Christmas Eve two years ago that my mom got sick. Her stomach was upset, and it seemed like no big deal at the time. We didn’t know it was the first symptom of a blockage in her large intestine that would send her to the emergency room two days after New Year’s. We didn’t know it was the beginning of the end. She didn’t touch her dinner, changed out of her fancy clothes and into sweats — absolutey unheard of for my mother — and watched her family enjoy the last Christmas fish dinner she’d make. It was delicious.

Now, Mom’s gone. Her generation is scattered up and down the East Coast. Their children — my generation — are scattered around the country. There will never again be another family Christmas of the kind I grew up with. Where my mother and her cousins were friends and hung out with each other, I’m barely in touch with my cousins. An occasional e-mail, a Christmas card, and sporadic visits during weddings and funerals.

I guess we’ve become “real” Americans. We don’t live like Italians any more.

All of these things are wrapped up in the Christmas holiday for me, so this season triggers many complex emotions. I don’t feel especially merry, but I do feel the pressure to be merry, everywhere I turn. And that makes this season even harder.
I’ll keep looking for that happy switch. But if my “Merry Christmas” is less than enthusiastic when we meet on the street, please understand it’s got nothing to do with being politically correct.


Ray said...

Thanks for your honesty, Denise. I suppose you can count me among the scattered, with me in Virginia and the rest of my family on Long Island. We do manage to get together around Christmas time, but it's not the same as when we were growing up, with aunts, uncles and cousins within a few mile radius. I think that makes our times together now all the more special.

My parents have been dead for quite a while and there's nothing I miss more than Christmas dinner at my folk's, with dusty chairs brought up from the basement, an extra leaf or two put in the table, a house full of relatives and Christmas music playing on WRIV.

We're all married now, my siblings and I, and we all have our own families. While some traditions end, it's also an opportunity to start new ones. We have a two-year-old and this year she's really into experiencing the Christmas season. We try to shield her from the commercialism, greed and stress that can come with the holidays and keep her focused on the what Christmas really means: hope.

There is no logical reason why, in this modern age, we celebrate the birth (although the December 25th date is disputable) of a poor carpenter's son in a poor village 2000 years ago. There had to be something about him that made him unique. You say you struggle with your faith. Welcome to the club. I think we all do, if we are truly honest with ourselves. But your struggle will make you stronger. Life is difficult, but that should make us more aware of the hope we have in Christ.

Thank you for maintaining this blog, Denise. In some ways I like it better than The News Review, although I can't respond to Debra Iannelli's letters to the editor anymore!

Celia L. Iannelli said...

Dear Denise - Your sensitive posting evoked a mixed bag of memories. I also came from a large
Italian family. We lived on Staten Island, my grandparents and Dad were from Italy. Our tradition consisted of fish and pasta after which we attended midnight mass. There was something hushed and magical about church. I loved it then and still do. After midnight Mass Santa came. What fun that was! My Uncle Paulie was always missing. He would come in after the gifts were distributed and with a twinkle in his eye would invariably say "what I missed him again?" I started to get it when I was about eight but I did not let on to my siblings.

One very memorable Christmas I wanted a two wheeler bike, my Dad convinced me that a "switchboard"
would be more fun so I could play
secretary. I guess it was a good-humored way to steer me off course. However when that red gleaming bike was presented..I did not ever let on that I was disappointed. He made the switchboard sound like
the best thing since peanut butter and jelly. My Dad and Uncle Paulie are gone, but their memory lives on forever in my heart.

I understand about the happy switch. When my first husband died
a day before Thanksgiving after a brief illness - there was no way I could even push the happy switch. So deep was my shock and sadness.Yup I felt fake when I put up the tree - I overheared my sons talking. They were worried that I turned into a psycho Mom. Faith? Unless you call being furious at God faith.

But you know life propels us foward. I guess one knows what has been lost, but not what one may find. Here I am in Jamesport with a new life and a wonderful husband. I acquired, to my delight, three more children and granchildren. The happy switch is on again after being off for very long time.
Thanks Denise for sharing and for the opportunity for others to have their voices heard.

Anonymous said...


What you have is the "holiday blues." So do I. Just before I read your "happy switch" article, I'd been discussing the same points you made with my cousin, who lives in Riverhead.

My grandfather put our summer cottage in Northville. He had four children, one of which was my mother, and they and their families all lived close together in Queens, and spent summers in Northville, again within walking distance, until I grew to adulthood.

We're all scattered now too, and rarely assemble for holiday or other special occasion dinners and the like. We don't exchange Christmas presents anymore. Cellphone communications just aren't the same as holiday visits.

That world has been lost. It's tough to get the Christmas spirit in these trying times.

But, we can rejoice in the past, and be glad we had those experiences.

I talked some time ago with someone from Ireland, where large Catholic families, as in Italy, were the norm. Communities were strong, but have been broken up in many respects by the "Celtic Tiger" economic revolution.

As on Long Island, housing prices have soared, with many children of the working class being forced to move farther and farther from their old neighborhoods in order to afford housing. The person I spoke to bemoaned the lack of community in the new housing developments, much like many of our suburbs, and said, "I think we were poorer, but better off 20 years ago," when Irish communities remained socially much as they had been for centuries.

Yesterday I talked to a minister who had just returned from New Orleans, and described his shock at the extent of unimaginable devastation. We have it good compared to the poor souls of the Big Easy.

Yes, things were happier with more family around, and we indeed are more isolated now in many respects.

But cheer up, Denise! You're doing a great job as Riverhead's watchdog, you seem to have a happy family and a nice home to be thankful for.

Merry Christmas!