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.