I’ve never watched a Hallmark Christmas movie. I know they are popular for their escapism from pleasant reality. But I’m self-aware enough to know my triggers, and I believe Hallmark movies could be one of them. It’s not that I went back to my hometown and had a disastrous holiday relationship—instead, it’s Christmas itself that’s the problem.
There are numerous reasons why people feel depressed during the winter holiday season. expectations for some. A popular Christmas carol tells us that this is the happiest time of the year. The media portrays the warm togetherness at every opportunity. But the Hallmark version of what happy family vacations should be like isn’t real for everyone.
I grew up in a dysfunctional home. We were one of the families that could not be together 364 days a year. Yet unlike other episodes of my childhood, Christmas morning was enchanting. I shudder when I think of my mother’s annual debt that she must have endured to turn that day into a heroic magical miracle.
My little sister and I were allowed to open our socks early as long as we didn’t wake my mom and her boyfriend. It was enormous and filled with small toys, hand games or puzzles, children’s magazines, food and other trinkets. Afterwards, it took hours for my sister and I to take turns opening the presents one at a time. Christmas morning was often a break from the battlefield of our home, and this is one of my few happy childhood memories.
In my teens I lived in group homes. Some kids had to come home for Christmas, but I wasn’t one of them. Spending Christmas in a foster home highlighted the things I didn’t have. I no longer had a family that had inexplicably turned into a Hallmark creation one day a year. There was no longer a cheerfully decorated tree or mountain of gifts, nor was there anything to temporarily distract me from the dysfunctions that had plagued the system.
Each December, the group house children would be asked to create a Christmas list. Once upon a time, the rule was that items cost no more than $10. Another year, every girl, regardless of what’s on her list, was given a piggy bank in the shape of a 12-inch-tall California Grape character with a single box of Sun-Maid raisins taped to her leg. Other years brought warm clothing and basic necessities: thick socks, knit hats, and white six-packs that came in plastic packs. I’ve always dreamed of the stranger who takes my handwritten list to the shop and leaves the packaged gifts without knowing which girl I am among the faces.
My first vacation in the system was a shock. Despite the losses of last year, instead of the love and sense of belonging that surrounded me with my family, I was surrounded by counselors and troubled adolescents. And no one else seemed to know or care what we were missing. In the following years, even for one night, I would make the girls go home with envy. I felt that their parents should love them more than mine loved me.
I grew out of foster care when I turned 18 and started navigating my independence. I went to public university and worked part time at a dry cleaners so I could barely afford the rent, much less gifts for my family. That first year, I skipped Christmas entirely. Instead, I hung out with a group of friends who weren’t home from school. None of us exchanged gifts or asked each other why we weren’t with our families.
One year in my early 20s, money was particularly tight. It was unthinkable to come empty-handed, so I spent two months trying to knit a sweater for my mom. In the end, it was a beast and I had to put it in a cereal box because I couldn’t afford the wrapping paper. That year sounds like a low point.
For me, the holiday season brings with it feelings of anxiety and inadequacy rather than holiday joy. I don’t know if the holidays bother me because they remind me of childhood Christmases I’ll never get back to, or all those Christmases in the system? Whatever it was, as an adult I rejected traditional holiday routines.
I’m not in a relationship with my mom or sister today, so no “going home for the holidays”. I don’t have kids so I never wanted to recreate a traditional Christmas morning.
My husband and I have a small business, so we often spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day on projects that we can’t complete while the business is open. However, we always set aside the week between Christmas and New Year’s to collect the car and head out to a destination I’ve probably booked in August. (Because December dates are in high demand, I’ve learned to make our reservations while most people are still thinking about summer.)
Our destinations range from Florida, where palm trees are adorned with twinkling lights, to mountain huts where it snows. This year we chose a hut nestled in a mountain valley, overlooking the river. I took it apart during a sweltering heat wave. It was the last available, and fortunately one of the most isolated.
We have created several “holiday” traditions. Our cabins must have a fireplace and a full kitchen. Besides the winter outdoor activities we enjoy, we always look forward to sitting in front of a roaring fire. We could spend hours sipping our beer and playing the board game Go. We like to cook from scratch on our holidays because we seldom slow down like that for the rest of the year.
New Year’s Eve is our big holiday event. Today we leave the cottage looking for something fun and local. We can spend the day touring the nearest mountain village, a brewery, or if there is an antique mall nearby. In the evening, while we eat a generous deli, which we call a picnic, we exchange gifts for each. If the cabin Wi-Fi is strong enough, we livestream the New Year’s Eve ball in Times Square most years. However, we don’t pay much attention to it until the countdown. The dog is dozing at our feet and we share a nice kiss at the stroke of midnight. After over a decade of picnicking late at night in front of a fireplace, I believe we’ve created our own version of the most magical time of year.
Some might say that my decision to skip messing around with Christmas entirely was a form of avoidance. Maybe I’m not facing my problems and all those other things a therapist would say if there wasn’t such a long waiting list to get a therapist these days. But this time of year is tough for most of us for a variety of reasons, and I feel lucky to be able to choose my own holiday adventure.
What we see in the media is not real for most of us. If the holiday triggers or upsets tradition, it’s okay to avoid or cancel out the parts that bother you. Or you can do what I do and create your own traditions, it has nothing to do with pine trees or tinsel. If you’re looking for permission, or even a sign, to do the same, let this be it. My husband and I have turned what may have been a sad time into something I truly look forward to. In doing so, we created a different holiday spirit.
Do you have an interesting personal story that you would like published on HuffPost? Find out what we’re looking for here and send us a pitch.