I cried myself to sleep Thanksgiving night.
There were no family fights, no drunken uncles or politically-charged conversations gone bad. The food was delicious, the company delightful. I made my Grandpa Davis’s turkey stuffings with a few adjustments for the vegetarians at the table. We sipped excellent wine, discussed education and societal trends, traded suggestions for movies worth watching.
It was a very adult holiday.
Yet when my husband and I arrived home, took care of the dogs, put our generous share of leftovers in the fridge, the click happened.
The click that reminds me the holidays of yore are, at best, rare occasions.
Thanksgiving and Christmas of my childhood meant generations of family together, older siblings willingly playing board games with the little ones, and singing along as my oldest sister played carols on the piano. During my 20s and early 30s, the holidays were marked by even larger gatherings as my siblings started their own families. The sweetness of wrapping my arms around tiny niblings as I read to them, of taking dictation as they composed notes to accompany the snacks left for Santa and his reindeer, of filling stockings after kids reluctantly went to bed–that sweetness remains unmatched and now seems unattainable.
Before it seems like I’m asking for pity, know this. I made the decision to be child free. The times when I have wanted children are minute compared to how often I have been content to be without them. The gut wrenching feeling of holidays without kids is a new phenomenon, starting around Halloween and lasting until my annual New Year’s Day hike. Maybe it’s because my not having children is absolute. Maybe because I am at an age when I once thought I might be a grandmother, or maybe because I no longer have little niblings to fill the wonder and delight gap.
This longing for past festively chaotic holidays–which is not a regret about being child free– gave me pause, made me curious about how others sans children view the holidays, and caused me to examine how I can work towards creating a new type of holiday season that keeps my tears in check, that feels as meaningful as they used to.
My child-free Christmas is not tradition free, nor am I alone in that. Writer and professor Marisa P. Clark told me how her holiday tradition developed. “I celebrated holidays with other gay friends who either couldn’t or weren’t allowed to spend that time with their families. It turned into great camaraderie among different groups of people. We saw movies, played games, put together pot-luck holiday meals, and just hung out and laughed, only sometimes exchanging gifts. This is now my favorite way to spend holidays–not to have too much of a set plan but to find out who’s around and wants company.”
My siblings are spread around the country, and it’s rare for us all to be together at any time of year, let alone during the fall and winter holidays when obligations make travel a burdensome prospect. My husband and I mix up where we spend our holidays. Some years we’re with his (very adult) family, some years with varied members of mine. I’m learning, though, that it isn’t so much where or with whom I spend Christmas day that matters to me, but how I have embraced what the season means in the weeks leading up to it.
Here’s an example. For the last twelve years, my dear friend Cheryl has spent a weekend in mid-December with us. We bake hundreds of cookies and box them up to distribute to colleagues, our favorite businesses, and friends. Cookie-baking day has morphed into an event—my parents always come by for samples, and we turn on Christmas music for the first time of the season. Cheryl and I spend about ten hours in the kitchen, but the good conversation makes it feel a lot shorter.
And this year, for the first time, my husband and I are making our holiday cards. He carved blocks and printed the cards while I mixed ink and addressed envelopes. While some people—my own mother included—dread writing cards each year, I welcome the chance to remind people I haven’t seen in a while that they matter to me.
A recent exchange with Samantha Hoyt Lindgren, a child-free-by-choice woman who has worked as a photojournalist, photo editor, and is the co-founder of Rabelais Books and founder of A Gathering of Stitches, examined meaning and the holidays for those of us who are not religious. Samantha writes, “Showering someone you love with gifts is a powerful action, one that can cause much joy. But at its core it is usually about the person giving more than the person receiving. If you don’t have that religious component to hang the whole season on, it is all about gifts. And certainly our culture emphasizes that with all the obsessive shopping, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and bargain hunting that seems to be the American way. So if you strip all that nonsense out, and you don’t have kids to indulge, then the season can be pretty hollow. At least for an Atheist. At this point the majority of the gifts I make are for the children within my universe. And that part is sweet and joyful.”
Like Samantha, one way I imbue the holiday season with more meaning, at least for me if not the recipients, is by making most of my gifts. I don’t stitch gifts as a form of Martha Stewartish showmanship. It is not that doing so is superior to buying gifts, but rather that handcrafting provides me with the opportunity to dwell on the recipient, to reminisce about them, about time we have spent together. And my hand crafting keeps me far from the crowds of anxious mall shoppers. The hours I might spend alongside the crowds are instead spent in joyful creating.
Some years, my holidays may be completely sans kids. There may be no marathon Monopoly games after dinner, no tribe of little ones putting on dance performances. Those adult holiday seasons may be as painfully sad as this Thanksgiving was. But in creating, in being self-aware, I may have found the poultice.
In the northeast where I live, our days are at their shortest, and our nights are at their darkest. It is all too easy to succumb to sadness. While I know the longing for kids to fill my house with their chaos may rear up every year from Halloween to New Year’s Day, the holidays can instead be a time for me to find sparkle and light, to find some optimism about this complicated world and spread it.
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