Once upon a time it was childish excitement, rather than grown-up anxiety, that kept me awake on the nights leading to December 25. I was puzzled when I heard the adults in my life remark that they were struggling to acquire the “Christmas spirit.” Why, I wondered, would this ever be a problem? The holiday arrived on the same date every year, after all. I started getting pumped about Santa and pretty colored lights while I was still groggy from too much Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing. Didn’t everyone?
The holiday traditions of my childhood were simple but sturdy. My struggling single mother always managed to squeeze out enough money for a tree — a real one, purchased from a grocery store parking lot — and for a respectable number of presents for my brother and me to unwrap on Christmas morning. Our little house in Corpus Christi had no chimney, but Santa somehow found a way in. I don’t remember much about our collection of ornaments, but I recall my irritation at Mom’s insistence that we drape the tinsel on the branches one strand at a time, rather than hurl the stuff in clumps. She was right, of course; it looked much nicer that way.
Holidays, like a lot of things, become more complicated in adulthood. In the fall of 1979, Mom came to Houston to stay with 25-year-old me while she underwent cancer treatment in the city’s world-class medical center. We set up a hospital bed in the living room of my tiny apartment, and my Aunt Frankie came to take care of Mom while I was at work. My brother Rod came often from his home in Galveston. The holiday triumvirate — Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s — came and went between the day Mom arrived and her death on January 30, 1980. I have no memory of how, or if, we celebrated these special days. All I really remember is a grim procession of hospital visits and my overpowering sense of impotence in the face of my mother’s suffering.
This experience created an association in my mind between the holiday season and personal tragedy, a link that was powerfully reinforced 32 years later. On the cold morning of December 27, 2011, my wife, Barbara Karkabi, left our home of 25 years for the last time. I had summoned an ambulance after hours of hearing her struggle for breath, her lungs squeezed by the pressure of fluid built up in her abdomen. Thirty-two days later, she succumbed to uterine cancer in the same hospital, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, where my mother had died. Did I give or receive any Christmas presents that year, amid the all-consuming crisis of Barbara’s illness? Did we put up a tree? I have no idea.
Between the deaths of these two women, of course, passed many Christmases when nothing terrible happened. The best ones, as I remember them now, were those when our daughter, Megan, was little, and her innocent joy washed over me. Barbara had firm ideas about how to celebrate the holiday — from the required pennies, tangerines and candies in the stockings, to the quantity of gifts under the tree (many) and the necessity of attending a midnight church service after visiting friends who hosted an annual Christmas Eve party. The wrapping of gifts often didn’t commence until after the church service; sleep was considered a frivolous luxury. (We regularly ran out of Scotch tape, a scarce item in convenience stores open at 3 a.m. on Christmas Day.) All of this, I can see now, reflected Barbara’s determination to replicate, as closely as possible, the holiday rituals of her childhood. Doing all this stuff every year was stressful — I remember driving around town for hours looking for a particular size of chocolate balls — but I went along with it because it was mostly enjoyable, until it wasn’t, and because I am temperamentally averse to conflict. (If this strikes you as a desirable quality, I urge you to reconsider.)
Now, almost nine years after Barbara’s death, I’m preparing for a mostly solitary Christmas. With the coronavirus pandemic raging, health authorities advise us to limit holiday gatherings to our immediate household. My household is me. A combination of precautions — carefully timed quarantining and testing, social distancing, masks, staying outdoors — will enable me to enjoy a bit of companionship on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and I’m grateful for this.
I have known for months, of course, that the pandemic would constrain the holidays this year. I didn’t feel particularly troubled by it until a few nights ago, when I watched a movie featuring members of an extended family who gather for Christmas in a big country house robed in artfully arranged blankets of fallen snow. Nothing in my South Texas experience resembled this, but the images on my screen nevertheless pushed buttons labeled “nostalgia” and “sentimentality.” These feelings soon gave way to more sober reflection about what the holidays actually mean to me, and to what extent the deaths of my mother and my wife may have poisoned the season. Curiously enough, when I consider what I’ll miss this year, the first thing that comes to mind is Chinese hors d’oeuvres.
In the 1980s, our friends Claudia and Don arranged for a group of friends to meet on Christmas morning at a Chinese restaurant for dim sum. Don and Claudia usually had family in from out of town, and several of us had young kids at the time. This tradition has continued, with changing venues, even as our kids, now in their 30s, have grown up and scattered. Until this year.
Dim sum is available year-round. The same friends could assemble for Chinese delicacies and conversation in July; we’d enjoy it, but it wouldn’t feel the same. Rituals observed at regular, predictable intervals provide us with a soothing sense of order. This applies to the holiday’s religious origins as well as to secular activities like the rending of wrapping paper. It’s no secret that Christmas and Easter are the only occasions when certain Christians set foot in a church. I intend no judgment in this statement; my own religious convictions are squishy at best. The leaders of the church I attended as a kid were literal-minded folks who didn’t accord any religious significance to Christmas because the Bible never states that Jesus was born on December 25. As an adult, I enjoyed the music and pageantry of the Christmas Eve services at the Episcopal church Barbara and I attended for many years, but any spiritual stirrings I felt were ephemeral.
Ten months of quarantine, which commenced just a few months after I retired, have given me a lot of time to think about this stuff. At 66, I seem to be entering a period that my therapist calls “life review.” The implications of that phrase are troubling, but in any event it’s clear that I have grown more introspective. Christians celebrate the four weeks leading to Christmas as Advent, a word whose secular meaning also resonates with me as I try to understand why my feelings about the holiday season are so murky. I sense that I’m on the advent of . . . . something, and that all this holiday stuff might be a path toward it. A priest at the church Barbara and I attended used to refer, during Advent, to “the mystery of Christmas.” It is a perfect phrase — truly, a holy phrase. I’m just going to sit with it for a while.