(Note: Skip the first 3 paragraphs if you don't care for a melancholic introduction written in typical Mary fashion. Spoiler alert: I don't like the holidays.)
The 1st of December on Vancouver Island equals gray skies capped with pouring rain, a couple of hours in the morning and at dusk. This is common for this time of year. The days are dark and dreary, and there are no sunny days, only occasion breaks in the clouds. The daily temperature hovers between +5 and +10, while the rest of this great northern nation braces itself for several more snowstorms ahead. This will be my warmest winter, but without a doubt, my darkest. I haven’t seen the sun for what feels like weeks, and I’m coming out of a two-week depression and physical sickness following my last trip back home, a moving trip, and a brief visit from my partner whom I love from far away.
I grew up in a city with cold temperatures, but with more sunshine days per annum than any other Canadian city. I thought the community was colder, too, and the hostility of people + my “tamer” ambitions + still-standing issues between my family members and myself formed, collectively, the biggest reason why I left home. I find myself thinking about the family I’m estranged from at this time of year, without fail. It is different, because with time the memories feel less personal. There’s no emotional attachment to what was and what can no longer be, but instead it’s like I look back at the last twenty odd years in high-gloss, where the people I knew and the relationships I used to cherish are sealed and protected, my memories only becoming more vivid with time.
With time and space, I am gaining the ability to see objectively. To feel and experience my days for what they are, not for what I once imagined them to be, or comparatively to the way I used to live before. And so, December 1st has come again, and with it a slew of anniversaries of days and events I’d rather forget. More will come as we near Christmas, since this time of year is hard for everyone. Which brings me to why I felt the need to write this evening. The ideas I feel like I need to work out even if they don’t fit together quite nicely. In my experience, December – this last month of the year, four weeks of last chances to do everything right one last time – has never fit together perfectly, or well, at all… ever. For the chaos and the heartache it has always brought me, and continues to bring me, I want to honour that. With objectivity and truth. With the knowledge that my past years of suffering are real moments of anguish for many, right now, at this time of year, and with the intention to show compassion to my loved ones and strangers alike. Here goes.
I’m going to spare you the personal sob stories this time. (What? But that’s what I always do.) I know. It’s crazy. But for what I’m feeling, and what I’m trying to verbalize right now, sharing personal anecdotes about past traumas are only going to distract both you and me. My frustration around this time of year is a persistent but dulling undercurrent. I feel that if I don’t lift it out of the mud now it will sink into my depths and be forgotten, and as tempting as that sounds to be a solution, it is merely a deferred problem. I deal with these feelings every year. Whether I’m depressed, traumatized, joyful, in love, wealthy, impoverished, stressed, or calm. And maybe I would still feel this way if I did come from a loving, functional family, and if I were still in touch with its fellow members today. Knowing all the things I know now and why I know them. The kind of world I live in. The kind of curiosities my generation has about truth and reconciliation and all the shades and implications of those and in-between. I think I would still feel a little off, a little sad. Knowing that Christmas, and New Years, and all the gifts and tidings and resolutions are part of a grand façade. That beyond materialism and corporate greed, there is fear. There is longing. There is emptiness. There is loneliness. There is the weakness and sadness in all of us, the feelings of failure, and the regrets we all have about ourselves and our relationships. One last push before that new beginning: Christmas parties, exams, Black Friday sales, trips to the post office, and planning that perfect dinner party, getting those perfect presents, and executing every picture-perfect moment with the people we love is all just… so easy. Too easy. No, it isn’t easy to do it all or pretend to do it all or to try to do it all, feebly, foolishly. It’s easy to fill our collective emptiness with this impossibility. All the different faces of it. All the different price points, timelines of it. Because if we all felt whole and loved and truly satisfied with our lives and relationships, we wouldn’t need a holiday like this. Not a convoluted Hallmark frenzy that’s so “politically correct” in its greeting we don’t know what to call it anymore, which misses the point entirely, if and when we consider that the forced celebration of Christmas was thrust upon our First Peoples in place of their traditional ceremonies of the potlatch/Sundance.
Herein comes the argument that “Christmas isn’t really about that.” Presents and stuff. Corporate greed and materiality and even the most innovative twist yet, that my generation has a huge hard-on for, supporting local businesses. Oh hell yeah! I do that too, as much as I can. Yet I also shop at Wal-Mart again because I live in a city that has big box stores so I can (on the Gulf Islands, hipsterism is a way of life, and you don’t have a choice) but also because I’m an unemployed student who looks for deals in order to support me. Let’s have a hard think about what that means then, by extension, to support others. Let’s think about why we’re supporting others. Why would we support others? And how would we do it if we were hard-pressed for cash? I’d like to take this opportunity to point out how absolutely fucked up it is to expect people who are financially strapped to buy useless shit for other people, in the so-called “spirit of the holidays”, when they are barely, just barely able to scrape by enough for themselves. Why is there an expectation at all for these people to make it work anyway? Why are our low-income families hoping for a Christmas miracle, so they can have some extravagant dinner for their kids and ungrateful relatives that everyone is literally going to shit out a couple of hours later, and to wrap a bunch of overpriced toys or clothes or other material things that are going to break/get lost/get forgotten about in months, maybe weeks? Why is it so important for people to “have a nice Christmas?” What I’m really asking is – who put this expectation there, and if we don’t know, why are we still so attached to it?
If you’re a Christian, Christmas really isn’t about all that, but you can acknowledge how rampant materialism has totally convoluted the meaning of your very sacred holiday. If you’re not Christian, but you partake in the materialistic portion of Christmas festivities because everyone else is doing it, here’s a serious question: how else could you be better spending your money and your time? If you have absolutely no attachment to the birth of Christ, why on earth are you buying into this shit, and at full price? Don’t try to tell me Black Friday isn’t full price. Oh honey. I’m all over that shit as soon as every sale drops, I would know. It’s full price because you’re out buying shit you wouldn’t normally buy but you’re buying it because it’s “on sale.” You’re buying shit for other people you probably don’t even like and you think you’re making progress because you’re buying it “on sale.” You’re buying shit for yourself while you’re buying shit for other people because you work so hard for your money and you deserve to treat yo’self too and self-care is important and you’re super stoked because it’s “on sale.”
I said no to the sob stories. I’m not saying yes now. But I do want you to know that I have done every single one of these things. For YEARS. I’ve done the worst of it and the best of it, meaning I come from a big, dysfunctional, loathingly materialistic Filipino family and I have decades of Christmas memories that involve flashy gifts and far-too-perfect dinner tables. After I decided that charade wasn’t for me anymore, I decided to give other people the Christmas they deserved, and two Christmases ago I sponsored a local low-income family and made holiday dreams come true for a single mom and her eight kids. I’ve volunteered at shelters to help cook meals and give gifts to kids. I’ve donated tons and tons of my own shit to non-profits in the acknowledgement that I’m a pack-rat and all my incomplete projects and material hopes and dreams aren’t worth shit if they’re in flat-top containers in my basement collecting dust, when some eight-year-old in my city who’s going to be the world’s best designer someday wants to draw their first masterpiece but their parents can’t afford a sketchbook. Shit like that. I try to find things to do over Christmas now. Things that are Christmas-related but not, activities where I can make myself useful, or I say fuck it to the whole thing and travel. But this isn’t the point. I say this not so that I can get martyred for how selfless I’ve been, how kind and fortuitous I’ve been to transcend my past experiences into great memories for strangers and loved ones alike. No, I want to push past that. Because what I want to understand is where this guilt from, this restlessness, this desire to make everything count at this time of year. As if these last weeks of December are more important than any other time of year. As if the way we act, what we spend, and the people we choose to spend our time with now override the intentions we set and actions we take throughout the rest of the year. And for that, I want to call bullshit. I want to throw my hands up and ask, what the actual fuck. Because… why? So many of us are just blindly going along with this holiday, with no attachment to its purpose or where it originally came from. And I know for a fact that there are more of us than we’d like to admit who share at least some of my sentiments, who know that beyond the corporate greed, the holiday parties, the drinking games, the rampant materialism, and the pretentious and hypocritical judgment of others and their behaviour at this time of year is all a grand, delicately orchestrated, glamorized façade, sucking the soul out of most of us and benefiting a small few.
This has turned into more of a rant than I expected it to, so I’m going to cap off with a little spiel on New Years. It used to be my favourite holiday. I loved the idea of new beginnings, I was always such a whore for them. That “New Year, New You” bullshit? I was all over it. But I was all over it all year. Admittedly, I hated myself and believed I was so inherently fucked up that no one would love me or stick around unless I overhauled my entire being. Naturally, a holiday dedicated to self-improvement and self-loathing disguised as self-love was a full-on celebration. It even has fireworks, and champagne, fuck yeah! (it was usually prosecco but y’know.) Year after year after year. I went gagagagagagaga over the foil planners, balloon formations shaped like the year, scouting out the best parties, wearing the most sparkly New Years dress, jumping at midnight with coins in my pockets and all the lights on (Filipino thing). And then I had a couple of tough years. More than that, I watched people I love go through really tough years. I’ve had people pass away on New Year’s Eve, or become homeless, or lose their jobs. Or lose a kid. Born and unborn. I tried really hard to articulate this in more recent years as I was absorbing all of this happening, witnessing all of these different degrees of loss, and still feeling the effects of my own. There are no new beginnings. None. You turn the page on the calendar or you throw out (recycle, I hope) your old one and slap a new one on the wall. Or you scroll up a bit on your phone and there it is, 2018 or 2019 or 20whateverthefuckitisnow. You are the same person you were on December 31st. You have the same hopes and dreams. The same regrets. The same failures. If you just lost someone you love, you don’t hurt any less. Things don’t suddenly look up for you because one number on the calendar changed. If anything, it’s salt in the wound. Time goes on. Life goes on. With or without you, or whatever or whomever you’ve lost.
After reading this, I don’t blame you if you think I’m angry, lonely, or jaded. I don’t blame you if you’ve dismissed everything I’ve said – and really, it’s okay, because writing this was my way of working out my thoughts and feels, and I’m never trying to convince anyone of anything, no matter how convincing my work may be – because you believe I’m projecting my bad luck and heartache onto other people. That is just fine, absolutely fine by me. I will say that for a girl who grew up in a mostly white, upper middle-class neighbourhood with the opportunity to have had a lot of extravagant Christmases in her short lifetime, I have more sour memories of the holidays than sweet ones. (And there were always very expensive desserts on the table.) I have seen and felt and dealt with a LOT of shit for a woman my age and I will be the first to admit that these experiences have hardened me, to a degree. But I say this not to be singled out, or patronized, or pitied, but because this is a very common story. The holidays are a HARD time for so many people. Not just people like me. We all go through so much, and we carry so much pain. The older we get, the more of it we carry on a day-to-day basis, and while we learn how do it gracefully, transitions and endings get harder with time. If you aren’t grieving, you will be. That’s the fucking truth. The more people we love, the more relationships we forge and build and commit to, the more we have to lose. And the flipside to that is that what we have that’s real, meaningful, and worth treasuring – our friends, our partners, our pets, our passions, and the family we keep, build, and choose – are far more important than material things, pleasantries, or the push/pull of Hallmark holidays will ever be. When we make ourselves whole, fill our homes with love, and live gratefully and intentionally throughout the year, it’s never about a perfect tree, a perfect dinner, a perfect cocktail dress, or a perfect surprise. None of that shit matters. You won’t try to change yourself, either, or resolve to be a “better you” because of what the calendar says. If you’re honest with yourself, you’re always trying to find ways to learn and improve, from a place that’s rooted in real self-love, not spiritual materialism, or the trap of self-improvement.
Now that I live in a place with zero sunshine days, it’s occurred to me that Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real thing and some Omega 3’s, Vitamin D, and regular exercise will do me a lot of good. All things considered, though, I’m happy to say that this is going to be one of the best holiday seasons I’ve had in a long time. Because I won’t be celebrating it. Seeing and understanding these holidays for what they are is helping me understand what really matters and its forcing me to make mindful, informed decisions about how I spend my money and time, since these days, I’m running out of money, and the older I get, the less time I think I have. Realism doesn’t replace the past, however, and the reason I sat down to write this in the first place is because it’s still hard to get through this time of year. I don’t expect to ever stop struggling with it, and getting real about what doesn’t resonate with me is my way of pushing through, but it won’t be like that for everyone. It isn’t to say I won’t be sending out holiday cards or getting cozy with my boyfriend in wool socks drinking mulled wine or wearing an elf hat because I fucking love bells. (WHAT! SELLOUT! Naaaaaahhhh bruh hear me out hear me out.) I’ll send out holiday cards because I am thinking about the people I love. I’ll drink my boyfriend’s mulled wine because it’s delicious and wool socks are my favourite and I’ll even entertain Christmas music the way I entertain unconsensual EDM at the beach in the middle of the summer because, well, ‘tis the season. I’ll wear an elf hat because I had a Santa hat with a bell back in the day, but now it’s gone, so I have an elf hat. And I fucking love bells. Are they handmade, fair-trade, locally-sourced silver jingle bells? Uh no. And if that’s what you’re actually wondering then you missed the point of this entire blog.
We do so much as a society to fill the empty holes inside of us. We consume, over-consume, re-consume, and plan to continue consuming far more than we need, and instead of reconsidering why that is, we instead find more excuses to justify that behaviour. I am far, far, far, far, faaaaarrr from perfect at this. I have tried to reroute this need to consume in the false belief that I could buy better-made things instead of things, things I need instead of things, destinations and memories instead of things (which is consumerism selling you a better, happier life – no different than any other gimmick in a bottle or broken toy packaged as a new one), and associations and appointments instead of things when I really needed lasting, free, genuine connections. Everything I’ve just mentioned has been a repackaging of a thing, something to be consumed, temporarily, in the moment. I’m someone who’s tried to be a minimalist, vegan, sober, celibate, healthy, non-toxic, independent, transparent, real. I tried to strip away everything that I thought was holding me down, baggage and things and people and pain. When in reality I am all my things. Materiality is how we live and understand ourselves in this world; it’s impossible to fully separate yourself from it. It becomes a problem when you disassociate materiality from meaning, and confuse consumerism with purpose. This is something I’m trying to figure out throughout the year, not just at Christmas time. Not just at a time when everyone wants a piece of your savings, your empathy, your patience, and your time. Not just when every corporation and estranged relative wants to plug away at your conscience and pin someone else’s regrets on you. Not just at a time that is repeatedly triggering for many, while being marketed as a time that is happy for all. It is impossible to fill all of our emptiness. Collectively. We are a sick and hurting world. But if we’re going to come close, at least enough to live somewhat happy and meaningful lives, we have to do that work every day, and commit to loving ourselves and others with our whole hearts: not just at the end of this year, and not just at the beginning of next. So, I’ll ask you one more time, why is it so important for people to “have a nice Christmas?” Who put this expectation there, and why are we still so attached to it? I’m not saying your kid doesn’t deserve a nice present under the Christmas tree. I’m saying, let go of the bullshit. Give the gift of love. To yourself. To the people you actually give a shit about. Give it all year. ‘cause nothing else matters.