Merry is optional
First published 12/16/2017
‘Tis the season, they say. For what, exactly, is up to each of us to figure out.
There’s the store-bought concept of what this time of year should be like, of course. Magazine covers, the Internet and daytime talk shows are full of ideas for making this The Best Christmas Ever.
There are tips on ways to simplify, of course. But those are dwarfed by ideas of a more elaborate nature, such as erecting a themed Christmas tree in every room and baking seven different types of soufflés for all the happy people gathering at your house, complete with timelines for what you should have done by now to ensure a stress-free holiday.
So I’m just going to say it outright.
It’s mid-December by the time you’re reading this, right? And frankly, it’s way too late to start making homemade Christmas gifts and wrapping them in the “it” decorating style of the season — Kraft paper with a dangling set of miniature ice skates adding just the right decorative touch.
Maybe this year your gifts will be wrapped in the paper bag you bought them. You did shop local, right? So no plastic bags for you!
Or maybe this year, your gift to others was not buying them a gift at all, thus relieving them of the duty to reciprocate. Let’s call it the gift of freedom.
Actually, that’s what I want to talk to you about it. I wrote a book called “Merry is Optional,” because I think we forget that it is, in fact, optional. We don’t have to enjoy a second of this season if we don’t want to.
That not an original idea. John Grisham’s “Skipping Christmas” is a pretty great book about a couple who found freedom in sitting out the commercial aspects of the season.
Of course, they found so much more meaning and joy in avoiding commercialism that they ended up finding meaning in the season anyway. Sorry for the spoiler.
The point is, they didn’t get to the point of enjoying what they were originally dreading by simply ignoring it. That’s not a thing when you’re walking around and breathing among radio ads and human beings cheerfully keeping count of how many days are left until Christmas. You can’t simply sit it out.
But you can find the freedom to do Christmas in the way that works for you in this season of your own particular life. It’s not always merry, but that’s OK.
Real life doesn’t stop happening around us because sleigh bells ring in the distance. As we go through the motions of “this time of year,” it’s like every other time of the year in wrestling with life’s harsher details — illnesses, broken relationships and the death of loved ones, to name a few.
So here we are. Now what?
Well, you choose. Given whatever situation you find yourself in this holiday season, what can you do to make the most of it? And should you choose to be merry, despite whatever challenges you’re facing, how do you do that on short notice, on a tight budget, amid some of the aforementioned situations?
You choose. You consider what matters to you most, right now, in this season of your life personally.
Not the commercial season, but your season. What does your life look like right now? What can you manage that might also bring you joy, or at least less angst?
Maybe joy isn’t right in the moment. Maybe you choose to create memories for yourself or others to savor later, when your situation looks up.
That may mean sitting through a meal or tolerating a celebration simply to have the experience or give it to a loved one, even though you didn’t feel like it. Or it may mean you buck tradition this year and just eat out on your own.
It’s your holiday. It’s your life. So you get to choose.
This particular Christmas will be my first without my children. That’s what divorce does.
I tear up just thinking about waking up Christmas morning without them. But the truth is, they are going to have a wonderful time with their dad, their grandparents and their cousins.
It was my choice to give them that gift without imposing my own feelings on them. To help make that possible, I’ve planned to sprinkle Christmassy type things out through the month, so we have moments of our own to cherish, even if they weren’t made on that particular day.
This will also be my first Christmas without my dad. He passed away last month, and I’m still treading water in the wake of his loss.
Last Christmas was actually the last time I saw him. And I’ll never forget the last night we had together.
We left the pool late at night, because you can do that in Palm Springs. And even though we were chilled, having wrapped up in wet towels for a ride in an open-air golf cart — as one does in a retirement community in Palm Springs, even in the dead of winter — we took the long way. We wanted to look at all the lights.
“Dad, I’m cold,” I said. “Let’s go home.”
“Soon,” he responded. “I just want to show you this one more. It’s fantastic.”
And with that, we spun past more houses that all looked the same to me, then stopped in front of one featuring a truly spectacular display. The boys and I stared in awe. My dad smiled proudly.
He’d shared a special moment with us. Now we could speed home — to the extent a golf cart allows, anyway.
My dad was all about going out of your way, even if you had to suffer a little, to enjoy a spectacular moment. So this season, even if it’s not comfortable, even if everything isn’t the way I’d hoped, I plan to also go out of my way to create moments to savor.
I’ll keep in mind that merry is optional. And while I’ll opt in as much as I can, I’ll feel free to opt out when I need to as well.
So, Merry Christmas to you — or not.
Nathalie Hardy writes her columns "Raising the Hardy Boys" and "Behind the Picket Fence" in the margins of real life.
It's been a rough year for a lot of us. In a lot of ways. If this resonates with you, I'd love it if you'd share it.
p.s. check back tomorrow for the backstory on this picture with my dad. The last one of us. And one of my favorites. Spoiler: my hair was wet and I was in trouble. Because it doesn't matter how old you are when you're at mom and dad's house. :)