Why I celebrate holidays I no longer believe in

There were the years I couldn’t fully enjoy the holidays because our gatherings were too different from earlier ones I’d loved. And now those lesser holidays are gone, too, our children grown and our dogs buried and our bodies both softer and more brittle than they’ve ever been. What I wouldn’t give to have moments of them back, even to hear my children bickering at the table again.

So I don’t wish any part of this year’s Thanksgiving away, even though the TV is on too loud and is too full of commercials for sweaters and tools and jewelry and perfume and red and green and sleigh bells and news of coming floods. Even though we spend too much time sitting in front of it and even though I miss those who aren’t here.

In the mornings my parents and brother and I watch Perry Mason and Leave It to Beaver and The Rifleman. On Friday my daughter–stuck in immigration limbo in another country–sends me an Instagram post about Thanksgiving and cultural hegemony and how simply rebranding Thanksgiving upholds colonization. (I haven’t seen her in more than a year. I don’t know when I will again, or how each of us will have changed by the time we do, what things about each other we’ll be surprised by because FaceTime will not have revealed them. My missing her is so deep it’s not even an ache. It’s something I don’t have a word for.)

Yes, I think. And.

I want to answer her, but I don’t know how to say how it is for me.

I know what the holiday is and isn’t and I care but I will not give up being with the people I love. Not because I’ve been conditioned or socialized to want it. I want them because they are me, they are mine, and they are still here and I can.

My mother and I spend some of the holiday agonizing over a decision about attending a Christmas party with extended family this year. My mother is now the oldest of us, a development I once understood would come to be, even as it felt impossible, then, that one day all those who came before her would be gone.

I’ve reached a stage where, on a good day, I am more grateful for what remains than mournful for what I’ve lost. (Will that be true when only my generation is left?)

We decide we should not go to the gathering. Risk-reward calculations are so difficult now. Are we saving ourselves for something our choices are taking from us?

My old dog whimpers when we come in the door on Friday after two nights gone. She’s too fragile to travel now, and she stayed home with my son, who spent the holiday with his dad and his siblings who have a different mother. I have to hold her for a good long time before her body stops trembling. I wonder what she felt while I was gone, if she wondered if I’d return. I hope not.

That night we watch Ted Lasso who says, about parents, that he has learned to love them for what they are and forgive them for what they’re not, and I wonder how things might be if more of us could do that about all kinds of things. I wonder if we could, or should. (I wonder if my children will do that for me.)

Maybe that’s an idea that makes it easier for those with relative comfort to remain comfortable.

Maybe not.

I don’t know.

My son sits down on the couch next to me, to check in with his old dog who isn’t leaving my side. I’m so grateful he was able to care for her while I was gone. I’m so grateful he’s here.

I think about the year he was in second grade, when, the week before Thanksgiving, I read him a story about Natives and Pilgrims and the origins of the holiday, and he told me it made him sad, that he didn’t feel good about the holiday. As his nose touches our old girl who now, like a baby, wakes mostly just to eat and poop, I remember all the versions of boy and dog each of them has been, and I want the moment to last forever, even as I know that all I might hope to hold onto is an image of it, and that the wanting has turned the moment to memory before it is even over.

15 thoughts on “Why I celebrate holidays I no longer believe in

  1. TD says:

    Wonder where was your husband? I think I hear lots of wonder for you within writing this post of why you celebrate this year’s Thanksgiving Day?

      • TD says:

        Ahhh! The other person in your “we” of this post is your husband, Cane. I had no idea who the “we” you may have been referring.

        I re-read your post this morning with much better clarity. And. The turkey’s wish bone of bittersweet holiday season. This one may have broke with the larger side of sweet and only a tiny side of bitter quickly fleeting.

        Your closure, if there ever can be one, “I remember all the versions of boy and dog each of them has been, and I want the moment to last forever, even as I know that all I might hope to hold onto is an image of it, and that the wanting has turned the moment to memory before it is even over.” displays that specialness of who you , Rita, are for me.

        This season included in one of my thankful is what your writing has taught me through the many years of passing is this:
        “I remember all the versions of…” This is my most favorite way of thinking of my love ones.

  2. Kate says:

    As always, your words resonate. This especially “We decide we should not go to the gathering. Risk-reward calculations are so difficult now. Are we saving ourselves for something our choices are taking from us?”

    I think about how summer 2020 we skipped renting the house we always do. We knew we wouldn’t get to hug our gram and it felt like too much risk, for too little reward. We went back in May of 2021, she was out of the hospital, but we didn’t visit because she didn’t want to risk catching ANYTHING. I respect those choices, but what I would give to have hugged her, or held her hand, or heard her laugh. I know it’s never enough. I will have always wanted one more visit. One more hug. But when my sister and I went back this fall, we talked about how it doesn’t really feel like going home now.

    And this: “I know what the holiday is and isn’t and I care but I will not give up being with the people I love. Not because I’ve been conditioned or socialized to want it. I want them because they are me, they are mine, and they are still here and I can.” I felt conflicted as we sat down to eat, but I wouldn’t change it. I know in a way I didn’t know, that the number of people who know me and love me in this kind of way can only grow smaller and I want to cherish my moments with them.

    Xoxo.

    • Rita says:

      Oh, this made me tear up–“the number of people who know me and love me in this kind of way can only grow smaller.” I remember being a little girl and realizing that my Grandma didn’t have any of the kind of people I loved so much–grandmas and grandpas and great-aunts and uncles. I wondered how that was for her, and I’m knowing more and more.

      I’m so sorry you didn’t get one more of those hugs, and that home doesn’t feel the same way. I know how that is. I remember having those conversations with my parents early on. They strictly isolated until we could all get vaccinated. I remember telling myself that it wasn’t worth the risk, that we’d had plenty of good years and experiences, but oh, it was hard. It was hard to lose that time when there’s so little left. As you said, there’s never enough. I’m glad you got to have time with family this weekend.

      • Kate says:

        Thank you, Rita! In another comment you mentioned a harder time with Christmas. As my religious views have changed, I find myself getting a bit meta about Christmas/solstice/the spirit of giving. Hand knit mittens, socks, hats, a cutting board with my grandma’s recipe engraved in her own handwriting, beeswax candles that smell like honey, tickets to an event, or a beautiful book. I love gift giving (it’s definitely one of my top love languages), but hate consumerism. One of my favorite IG follows was talking about how giving this time of year was a much simpler thing – spices, a piece of cloth, homemade broth or a baked good. I like that idea – building community and giving as an extension of neighborliness.

        It’s a hard season with plastic and hustle and bustle and SO MANY CATALOGS and commercials, but I like the idea of cozy lights and warmth and small tokens to say “I hope this brings you some joy this season.”

        • Rita says:

          I love the way you have put all of this, and it is what I’ve been trying to move toward for some time. When I was a child all the way through high school, I made all of my Christmas gifts for the adults in my life. And then, I became a college student with less time and fewer resources, and then adult responsibilities took over my life. Tomorrow is a non-work day for me, and I think I’m going to take advantage of my new opportunity to shop on a weekday and visit some small, local businesses where I can find the kind of special things you’re talking about. And maybe next year I can go back to making more. It’s funny, but I was talking with Cane about gift giving and love languages this weekend. It’s not a strong one for me, but I’d like to develop my capacity for that.

  3. Robin Ruff Leja says:

    I’ve decided that Thanksgiving is now truly only celebration of gratitude, with no thoughts for its original myth. But I lost my appreciation for the family gathering during my years working retail, when there was no time to travel and return fast enough to be back at work. Now that I have the time to travel to family, we don’t do it, because food allergies keep us from being able to feast at a potluck meal cooked by far too many others. So we feast at home, just the two of us, and celebrate being grateful for 40 years of togetherness. Our true family, the kids and grandkids, vaccinated all, will be here to celebrate Christmas in a few weeks. That is the only holiday celebration that I need. I don’t know yet if the inlaws are holding their usual giant gathering, I hope not. The adults are all vaccinated, not so the children. I’d rather not risk a breakthrough infection, or a sly comment from people on the far side of the political spectrum from me.
    Robin Ruff Leja recently posted…Beloved OctoberMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Hi Robin,
      I’m so glad you will get to have your close family for Christmas, and that all will be vaccinated, especially now that there’s a new variant likely to be here by then (if it’s not already). I would love to go to my extended family’s gathering (all vaxxed, even the kids, and all at the same end of the political spectrum, which feels like such a gift these days), but just don’t want to risk my parents’ health. I’m realizing how lucky we are to be part of an extended family in which we all truly enjoy being together. I hope you have a wonderful time with kids and grandkids!

  4. Ally Bean says:

    I wonder how many people, if they are being honest, would admit in celebrating holidays that no longer mean a thing to them? I go along with most holidays celebrations in my own way, which is to say sometimes I join in, other times I ignore them. As for getting together with family to celebrate anything, that’s long over for me. It’s just Z-D and I, which is a rather nice thing for an introvert.

    • Rita says:

      I can admit I’m having a harder and harder time with Christmas, but it is so omnipresent that it’s difficult to just go about living one’s normal life in December. Without Christian religious belief, it just becomes a celebration of consumerism. I’ve tried recasting it (much as I have with Thanksgiving), but it doesn’t work as well as I’d like. I can’t seem to abandon it entirely (I still give gifts, though not in the way I once did). I do find meaning and joy in celebrating Solstice, though, and try to focus on that. Bring on the light (literal and metaphorical), baby.

      Also, we’ve been having some conversation in my family (almost all of us introverts) about last year’s holidays. We admitted that we all liked just staying home and celebrating in a very small way. But, we also missed each other, and the break from work makes it an opportunity to see each other (as we live far apart). I think we’re finding our way to some new ways of celebrating. It’s a work in progress.

  5. Kari Wagner Hoban says:

    Oh, Rita. This speaks to me for a variety of reasons. This past Thanksgiving weekend, my brother and his family came to visit. It was the first time we’d spent that holiday together since the mid-2000’s, and it was lovely. It wasn’t always lovely when we all got together, but it was this time. A lot has changed in the intervening years. I’ve evolved since then. Especially in my perspective on the world, my family, life, the should and the should nots.

    That Ted Lasso quote is something I’m working on. That, I believe, is the key to happiness and moving forward.
    Kari Wagner Hoban recently posted…Who’s On Your Guest List and Breaking the IceMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I’m so glad you had a lovely time with your brother and his family! I’m guessing everyone has evolved. So much has happened to all of us since the mid-2000s. Sometimes I feel really nostalgic for those years, but I know I’m a better person now than I was then.

      One of my favorite sayings is that we shouldn’t should on ourselves. 🙂

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