This Year I Failed at Christmas

started decorating the week before Thanksgiving, following my younger daughter’s lead (Emily is 15 and loves to decorate her room every year — she’s even got her own tree).

We put lights in all the windows and lit candles every day. My husband and I picked Emily up from school on a Friday in mid December and drove 30 minutes to a farm where we got our biggest tree ever. It was a beautiful blue spruce, another first for us. In the past, we’d always gotten Douglas fir trees. Blue spruce trees are fat and full with a lovely blueish green hue. My daughter fell in love with them.

While gorgeous, the trees have sharp, unyielding needles that pierce unprotected flesh. I had a bad feeling about the tree when we were still at the farm and my husband stepped back from the hard work of cutting it down to reveal a few spots of blood on his face.

“That can’t be good,” I said, looking down at the fallen tree.

“Don’t be so negative, mom!” my daughter had responded.

December carried me forward, as it always does, filling my days with a frenzy of last minute tasks and events. This was a tight year (financially), which meant I had to leave some shopping to the very last minute as I waited for client checks to arrive.

I’m a full-time freelancer and often rely on credit to fund Christmas, but that wasn’t an option this year because I’m trying to get out of debt. Most of my credit cards are enrolled in financial hardship plans (they freeze my credit, reduce my monthly payments, and remove or reduce interest). The few cards that aren’t are maxed out.

Rebuilding my credit feels good, except in the week before Christmas when there’s still a ton of stuff to buy and no money to pay for it all. It didn’t help that I also lost a big client a few days before Christmas. I still had some December bills to pay and a few gifts left to buy.

Sometimes I’m convinced that grief is opportunistic. It’s like a hungry dog in the kitchen, waiting for the moment when, distracted, you drop a glob of cookie dough or half-cooked noodle onto the floor. Then it pounces.

I obsessed over every dollar coming in and going out for most of December. When my bank balance got really low, despair rolled in, pushing all thoughts of the holidays aside. I questioned my worth, doubted myself, and felt the familiar weight of failure dragging me away from the bright light of Christmas morning.

At my lowest point, grief rose up — mixing in with my high anxiety — making me second guess my ability to truly celebrate a holiday that was supposed to be about joy and life and living. I got lost in old photos. I yearned to see and hear Ana again. I stared at the place where her stocking once hung, now an empty space adorned with her photo.

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Ana, left and Emily right on Christmas Day in 2010 (ages 8 and 5) — photo by author

By December 24th, the Christmas tree loomed, lovely and lethal. The sharp needles had made it nearly impossible to decorate fully. It was far too fat for our dining room. It took up too much space and seemed to brood — an accusatory tree that mocked all my attempts at being festive. I avoided going near it because it hurt to get close to it. But it sure was pretty to look at.

That day I received two client checks in the mail. They were enough to cover all my outstanding bills for December and enable me to buy a few last minute gifts.

We spent Christmas Eve with my husband’s family, a tradition I’ve grown to cherish. My financial woes were temporarily alleviated, but my sadness remained. My daughter spent the evening with her older cousins (the girls are 15, 17, and 19) and, while this gave me joy, it also made me miss Ana even more. I brought a candle and a small frosted votive holder to burn it in. The candle kept going out. I spent the evening watching it, trying to ensure it stayed lit, and eventually gave up.

On the eve of Christmas Eve, I could no longer avoid the tree. I (gingerly) placed presents around its base, ignoring the pain of the needles that pierced my fingers and arms when I got too close. I filled the stockings and settled in to watch Elf with my daughter. Our living room and dining room are connected, but we slid the pocket doors closed so my daughter wouldn’t see the gifts until morning.

That night, before settling into bed, I drew a heart on the chalkboard wall in my office (formerly Ana’s bedroom). “Merry Christmas, Ana,” I said with a lump in my throat.

I keep trying to move past this habit of drawing hearts on Ana’s old bedroom wall. I erase them, make the wall blank again, and convince myself I’ve moved past this ritual, but then I find myself back in her room, standing in the quiet of my own grief, and drawing hearts.

Christmas morning was wonderful and warm and full of light. The tree did not disappoint.

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Our tree with presents on Christmas Morning 2019 — photo by author

Then, after the adrenaline of opening gifts had died down, the three of us settled in to play video games and relax until it was time to go to my sister-in-law’s house for Christmas dinner.

At that point, the tree didn’t look so bad. It felt as though I’d made a sort of shaky truce with it, but when we returned later that night without my daughter (she stayed for a sleepover with her cousins), I had to admit that any affection I’d experienced for the tree was gone. I wanted it out of my house. I wondered if my husband and daughter would object to getting rid of it the very next day. The tree had been a mistake — my biggest Christmas blunder yet — a perfect symbol of my misplaced optimism. How could I have believed that the third Christmas without Ana would be easier to bear?

Even so, I still had hope that it wasn’t a complete bust, that maybe the gloom I was feeling before the holiday was fully over was the typical “letting down” that happens after all the festivities are over and the pressure to have a perfect holiday is finally gone.

I retrieved Emily from her cousins’ house early on the morning after Christmas. She seemed subdued, exhausted, and a little sad. I thought she’d go straight to bed when she got home, but instead she took down all her Christmas decorations — every single one.

I followed her lead, just as I had when we decorated the house a month ago. I put all the glittering decor away, stuffing our red and green Christmas bins with merriment, folding the gift bags neatly so we could use them next year, and (with no small amount of relief) removing the ornaments from the tree. The needles were still sharp, though not quite as lethal.

When I was done, my husband unraveled the lights and chopped the tree up, stuffing the pieces out the window. He vacuumed the needles in silence. The relief was palpable and so was our sadness. The last piece of the tree to go out the window was the trunk (stripped of needles, branches, and ornaments). As I stared at it from across the room, one singular thought kept running through my mind.

Such a waste.

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Photo by my husband, Jim Dooley, posted with permission

This year, I failed spectacularly at Christmas, but recognizing that fact — and being okay with it, feels kind of like a success. I am, after all, still learning how to live with the profound loss of losing Ana. I am still trying. So, maybe I overshot the mark a little (or a lot) this year, but that doesn’t mean I’ll always fail.

Postscript: Emily spent the day after Christmas cleaning and rearranging her bedroom. My husband helped her hook up a new turntable that she bought with money she earned herself. He hooked the turntable up to Ana’s old stereo. Her room looks magical now — it’s filled with fairy lights, pillows, and music. All the Christmas stuff is packed away again, but that’s okay.

As for me, I packed everything away too, but I decided to leave the string lights on all the windows to keep the darkness of January at bay. This feels like exactly the right amount of light.

Written by

Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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