It was the best of holidays, it was the worst of holidays. It was Christmas.

I’ve always loved Christmas. Growing up, my family had more goofy traditions than we had presents, and we seemed to add a new one every year. We baked cookies and always put flour on our noses, for some reason. We collected ridiculous Christmas tree ornaments that I inherited from my mom that still adorn my tree every year, each one a story from my childhood. Every one a memory.

It’s that last part that makes me kind of hate Christmas this year. My mom passed away back in June, and this is my first holiday without her around. Hanging the ornaments on our tree last night went from being the regularly scheduled trip down nostalgia avenue it has always been, and, in a cruel twist of the knife, transformed into a bitter reminder of everything I’ve lost.

I didn’t show it, of course. I laughed and joked with my kid as we put each ornament on the tree, and kept the decorating tradition the fun time it’s supposed to be. But inside, I was feeling it. Hard.

I’ve always loved Christmas. True, I can’t stand 24/7 Christmas music (especially when one of the Worst Christmas Songs Ever comes on), and I get unreasonably angry whenever I see holiday decorations go up in stores while the undead corpse of Halloween is still twitching. Still, I do love the sights and sounds and smells of the holidays, even when they kind of annoy me.

I like driving around on Christmas morning and seeing kids ride their new bikes down the street. I enjoy just sitting in my living room, staring at the twinkling lights of the tree while I gorge myself on chocolate pie like some kind of desperate caveman on the last bowl of wooly mammoth stew. I get a kick out of Christmas shopping and finding the perfect gift no one expects. In short, I dig the holidays.

Kristian Bland
Kristian Bland

But it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Not when you get right down to it.

Suicide rates skyrocket over the Christmas season, alcohol-related accidents spike, and far too many parents go deep into holiday debt they’re lucky to pay off before the next Christmas rolls around. Then there are all the other awful little touches of the holiday season - endless charity drives, “optional” (mandatory) office parties, forced gift giving, etc… There are a lot of downsides to Christmas that no one really talks about, and sometimes, surviving it is an accomplishment all by itself.

You can’t so much as go to the grocery store to pick up the gallon of milk you forgot to pick up on the way home from work after your wife reminded you not to forget to pick it up on the way home from work without walking past somebody ringing a bell next to a pot, asking for your spare change. And you feel like a jerk if you don’t at least drop a couple of dimes in the thing. Depending on how often you buy eggs and bread, this can add up.

Every charitable cause is looking for your money, too. I get that, though. Christmas is their main donation season, and without donations, some really great causes wouldn’t be able to carry on the wonderful work that they do. Still, there’s only so much money to go around. No one can donate to everyone, but each charity you fail to send a check to does its best to make you feel awful about not helping out. Especially if there’s a Sarah McLachlan song involved.

charles taylor

And let’s talk about office parties for a second. No one likes office parties. They’re awful and awkward, and pretending to enjoy the company of That Guy outside of work is physically painful for everyone involved. (Every office has at least one, and I’m probably it.) Attendance isn’t mandatory, of course, because no HR department would ever sign off on that sort of forced participation, but they’re really only optional in the same way that death and taxes are voluntary. You’re going to go, or there will be Consequences.

Most of the time, some sort of gift-giving is involved, too. Whether it’s the ever-popular “Secret Santa” routine, or white elephant joke gifts, your attendance is not only expected, but your participation in the gift exchange is pretty compulsory, too. There’s almost always a price limit, of course, but there’s always That Other Guy who ignores it just to make everyone else look bad. The joke gift exchange is theoretically fun because who doesn’t like a good laugh, but really, it’s just a waste of money everyone could be spending on buying their loved ones things they actually want.

Sure, watching your boss awkwardly play with a Shake Weight in front of the staff is good for a quick laugh, but you know that thing’s going in the trash as soon as the party's over, and you’re out twenty bucks for nothing.

Shake Weight via Amazon
Shake Weight via Amazon

You know who I spend my money on at Christmas? My own kid. If you’re an adult who wants a present out of me, you need to either be really special or my wife. Probably both. Everyone else is out of luck.

I’m not always this grumpy during Christmas, but this year is a tricky one. Not only am I dealing with every happy holiday memory from my childhood making me miss my mom, but it’s an even-numbered year. Which, if you’re the custodial parent of a shared-custody child, you’ll recognize as Not Your Year.

I’m a stepdad, and my kid is everything to me. I’m sure every parent thinks their kid is the best, most amazing child on the planet, but everyone who isn’t my kid’s parent is objectively wrong. Sorry, but that’s just Science.

My stepson will leave for his dad’s this Friday evening, and we won’t see him again until December 28th, when we try to cram a month’s worth of holiday cheer into just under a week. It’s always a challenge, but we manage. We’ll bake cookies the day he comes back, then go do some last minute shopping the next day before Santa comes around on the 30th and transforms New Year’s Eve into Christmas Day the next morning. We’ve been moving holidays around every other year for nearly a decade now, so we’re basically Time Lords, at this point.

Zoonar RF

It never gets any easier, though. Christmas Eve is just another night in even-numbered years, and Christmas Morning is just another day where I don’t get enough coffee. (Except I call it Coca-Cola because I’m basically a child who never learned how to like grown-up things.) My wife is pulling extra shifts at work to keep herself busy over the holidays, so I’ll just be home alone all Christmas. With any luck, Joe Pesci and the narrator from Wonder Years will try to break in or something, and spending my time building elaborate traps in my home will keep me distracted. Cross your fingers.

So, yeah. I love Christmas and I hate Christmas. At the same time.

I love all my happy memories, even as I hate how the older I get, the sadder they become. I love making new memories with my kid, but I hate the years when I can’t make as many as I want. I love being with friends and family, although I hate how there seem to be fewer and fewer of them each year, as the relentless march of time takes more of them away from me. I love giving, but hate feeling like I can never give enough.

A lot of people always try to remind everyone what the holiday season is really about, and they all make fair observations and have valid points of view. For me, though, the holidays have only ever been about one thing: Family.

Kristian Bland
Kristian Bland

Family isn’t just who you were born with, or who you marry into. Your family is who you choose to let in your heart. Your real family is who you make it.

So make it a good one. And try to have a Merry Christmas, even if you can’t be with them.

I know I will.

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