Growing up, I enjoyed Christmas as much as the next kid. I became ambivalent toward the holidays some time in my mid-20s, but it wasn’t until I got married that my indifference toward Christmas flared into genuine dislike. I found the unbridled materialism unpalatable (now that I was at an age when it no longer benefited me personally), the music irritating, and the moralistic undertones cloying. Craving an observance more peaceful, that felt more meaningful, I renounced the Christmas of my youth.
The first Christmas after I made my stand, my mother had a hard time believing I was serious. As mothers do, she wheedled, cajoled, and twisted my arm to join in the usual family reindeer games. I demurred, and she insisted, until finally one day, desperate to be understood and irritated beyond measure I finally snapped, “I don’t like the way you celebrate Christmas!” And watched, mortified, as her eyes filled with tears.
Now, my mother loved Christmas. She loved the tree, the music, the dopey Christmas specials on TV, the cookies, the wrapping, the craziness. She was an extraordinary gift-giver, paying close attention to the random comments of those she loved throughout the year and taking note of what they wanted and needed, and she gave precisely the things that would delight us most and suit us best. So when I made my nasty, hateful comment, I couldn’t have wounded my mother more had I slapped her across the face.
“Spirit!”‘ said Scrooge, “show me no more! Conduct me home. Why do you delight to torture me?’
I bungled it so badly, my wish to declare independence; and although my mother soon forgave me, I still haven’t quite forgiven myself. Yet I was motivated by natural impulses: I wished to celebrate the seasons in my own way, to carve out my own traditions. And as the youngest of four children I desperately wanted to be taken seriously as an adult.
Family Christmases tend to be difficult precisely because they amplify the natural tension between wanting to belong and to be taken care of (Cancer) and the desire to be taken seriously as the captain of your own ship (Capricorn). It’s tempting, when you’re first coming of age, to feel this is a zero sum game and that you can’t be your own person as long as you’re also someone’s child. And so you make foolish, hurtful mistakes, as I did, feeling the only alternative is a certain death of the self.
Ultimately I made my peace with mom, and she gracefully yielded to my desire to celebrate the holidays in quiet solitude with my husband and our cats. Left to my own devices, I didn’t throw away all of the Christmas traditions of childhood: we send Christmas cards, bake for neighbors and friends. Then on Christmas Day we relax, eat Chinese food, and watch a marathon of something mindless on TV.
There comes a moment during each holiday season when I reflect on the boisterous, colorful, exciting Christmases of my youth, of piles of presents under a big tree and throngs of loud, happy family members … and I wonder whether my modest version of Christmas doesn’t mark me a Scrooge. But in my heart, I know that all I really want of the Christmases I remember is to be a child again. I want my mother, who passed away eighteen years ago. I want to hide in a quiet room, secure in the knowledge that I can rejoin the noisy crowd in the living room anytime I feel like it. I want to belong to a big, noisy brood – but I don’t, not any more. And the truth is, even when I was part of that festive clan, I always felt a little bit apart, as though I had one foot out the front door, ready to make my escape.
Mostly, I’ve accepted my more solitary nature. This Christmas, though—let’s call it transiting Saturn opposing my natal Moon—I’ve felt the darkness of the season keenly. Scrooge’s ghosts have haunted me, and I’ve found myself wondering whether I have indulged myself too thoroughly in my independence. Who, I wondered, would care for my husband and me as we age? And if I were gone, would anyone miss me the way I miss my mother? Am I a joyless Scrooge, on a lonely path toward a pitiless end?
“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”
In the end, I got my wish – I’m a grownup now, and sometimes it’s a lonely, difficult path. But in this dark, Sun in Capricorn season, the Moon is a kindly ghost who rises up in the cold winter sky to show my mother’s face to me—the Full Moon face of Cancer’s caring and protection, its offer of nurturing and belonging. By all rights, that face’s smile should be cold. “Look at you,” my mother in the Moon might fairly say, “You didn’t like the way I kept Christmas, but your way seems pretty bleak. Happy now?”
But of course, as in life, her face in the Moon is kind and wise and always happy to see me. And it shines down on my little house and family and the irrepressible vestiges of her old Christmas traditions—the lights on the porch, the cards hanging like tinsel, the plates of cookies. And my mother in the Moon reassures me about the life I’ve chosen, and laughs at the idea that any daughter of hers could be as heartless as Scrooge. “Oh, it’s so beautiful here, honey,” she tells me, observing the glowing fire, the peacefully snoozing cats, the husband in stocking feet. “It’s quiet and peaceful, and it’s absolutely perfect for you.”
As usual, she’s right. And I realize that what I was looking for all along in carving out my own version of Christmas was not just Capricorn respect, but a Cancerian appreciation for the needs of my own heart. And that all my mother wanted was to give me what suited me best – I just needed to learn what that was, so I could ask for it.
Scrooge’s own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.
At this holiday season, may you have all of this and more, and everything your heart desires.
Excerpts from “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. Full text available online at Literature.org.