Holidays, Aliens & Cookies


There are things I love about December.

I love the smell of cinnamon and pine.

I love the haphazard visual cacophony of other people’s badly hung Christmas lights.

I love it when the air turns crisp and tense, allowing my falconry birds to cut through the December sky hard and full of heart. I love snuggling beneath a mound of blankets and a couple of dogs in the drafty chill of a 1925 house. I adore the sound of bells. And Christmas cookies. I really LOVE Christmas cookies. All kinds of Christmas cookies. Pretty much ALL the Christmas cookies.

I hate the holidays though. They have never met my expectations and I’ve never met theirs. The warm gestures, perfection of the human spirit, and magical mysteries of the season have never arrived perfectly timed to the season and at my doorstep – not on accident or by my design. My family celebrates Christmas and I can’t remember a single one in 40 years that wasn’t a disappointment, if not a disaster. (In fairness, I don’t remember the first four. They might have been perfect, but I doubt it.)

Even though I continually tell myself that I’m not expecting anything special, I somehow get let down. Some years it’s a family fight over dinner or just an accidental unkind word in my direction. It’s a dissatisfied look at what I thought was the perfect gift. It’s the silence of my cell phone when I’m hoping for someone I miss deeply to reach out and think of me. It’s that moment when the falcon misses the duck I was hoping to bring home for dinner, because, well Christmas. Come on, falconry gods! It’s not like I asked for a pony!!

I think most of us aren’t really expecting that much, but I’m willing to bet that almost all of us are quietly discontent, if not miserable about the whole ordeal. There is always something missing during the holidays – a person, a promise, or one of those annoying fantasies that every ounce of media insists will soon be ours. ‘Tis the season. You only have to believe!

I think we all have stealth expectations.

Brené Brown in her book Rising Strong describes stealth expectations as those things we expect from ourselves or others, but don’t ever honestly tally. We expect them, but never actually give a thought to whether or not they are possible. And without a reality check on our expectations we are likely to be hurt or even resentful. Christmas is the season of stealth expectations.

In fairness, Christmas isn’t the only event I learned to face with a sense of dread when I was younger. I always felt the same way about my birthdays. No matter how much I hoped, hinted, and wistfully opened the door on my darkened home, no one ever yelled “SURPRISE!”  Someone always forgot to call. Boyfriends oddly seemed to manage a breakup right before the next birthday. By the time I was 24 I wanted to burn my birth certificate and ban any reference to it. Instead, I decided to take back the day and make it my own.

When I was 24, I started a ritual that I’ve held vigilantly to this day. I start fasting at sundown the night before my birthday. (So, you’re welcome to forget my birthday cake. I’m not eating it anyway.) Then when the sun sets, I find a quiet private place, light a candle, sip from a goblet of milk, and list all of the year’s most wonderful moments, the ones I want to take with me into my next year. When I’m done, I blow out the candle, leave all the year’s disappointments in the year that made them, and then I go pig out on pretty much everything good I can think of to eat or that happens to fall on my plate. Sometimes I feast with others. Sometimes alone. It doesn’t make a difference. The only thing that matters when you are that hungry is that you feast. So I haven’t had a disappointing birthday in 20 years. I made it my own. I know exactly what the expectations are. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it…

I don’t know why I’ve never done something like this for Christmas, which is an inherently more difficult season. I mean, they don’t bombard me with advertisements for my birthday. I don’t have to feel guilty that I barely made my mortgage and for the fourth year in a row no one is getting presents. I don’t spend a lot of time trying not to think about who will never again be sitting at the family table. The whole world isn’t pressuring me to smile, be cheery, and grateful. And blessedly, there are no mythical beings passing judgement and deciding whether or not to bring birthday magic.

I don’t believe in the holiday season, but I’ve seen the commercials, the magazine ads, and the billboards. So, I feel the same way I feel about aliens and ghosts. I don’t believe, but I really really want to believe. You see, apparently I’m going to get a boyfriend, quite possibly an engagement ring, a festive family, no new life disasters (not during the holidays!), a big unexpected gift that makes me feel loved (probably a new car—that seems standard), a flood of love from strangers, at least five new reasons to be joyous and hopeful, and maybe even a Clydesdale.

Except that I’m not. In fact, where would I even PUT a Clydesdale? And why would I want my wonderfully imperfect family and friends to suddenly be absolutely picture-perfect examples of humanity. I’d be wondering if it was Christmas —or an intervention. (Or perhaps if they’re actually those aliens I want to believe in, but those aren’t the sort of aliens I’m hoping for.) And I’m pretty sure that those Hallmark-movie Christmas boyfriends who ask you to marry them in three days’ time, actually end up being the serial killers on next year’s Lifetime movies.

So this year, I’m taking back Christmas and I’ve been carefully considering my expectations.

Here’s what I’m expecting… cinnamon, pine, other people’s badly hung Christmas lights, falconry birds against a winter sky, cold nights with warm snuggly dogs, the bright jingle of copper bells, and cookies, maybe even ALL the cookies  –even if I have to make them myself.

May your holiday expectations be realistic, merry, and bright!


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