You know that little letdown, that pang of depression you get the day after Christmas? I don’t get that. While many, if not most, people who observe the holiday look forward to Christmas, I look forward to the day after Christmas. I don’t mean that in the “aw, I’m sad that it’s over but at least now I can relax” sense–though there’s that, too. I mean that I truly look forward to it with excitement and anticipation. You might even say the day after Christmas makes me giddy (well, as giddy as an INFP/INFJ who’s not tipsy can be). Christmas to me is really just The “Day After Christmas” Eve. And the day after Christmas is what I look forward to. Unlike Christmas, it’s a day of no expectations and no responsibilities. The relentless commercials and pressure-packed sales adverts are, though still present, less incessant. And there are decent leftovers because, in Italian (or, like ours, partially Italian) households, Christmas dinner always includes a stuffed or baked pasta–and lots of it.

It’s not that I hate Christmas or anything. But, like most people who’ve experienced loss, the holidays for me are bittersweet. There are the Christmas Carols; the sights, sounds, and smells of the holidays; the Claymation Christmas shows that bring back memories of childhood; the endless “triggers” that make my heart ache and remind me of the dear family members I’ve lost–my parents, my brother. For years, I dreaded the holidays and braced myself for weeks of crying, depression, avoiding malls and holiday parties, not turning on the car radio for fear of hearing a Christmas song that would remind me of my mother…or my father…or my brother. Of Christmases past.

Then my son was born, and the holidays became all about him. I’d take him to see Santa, have fun buying presents for him and experiencing Christmas through his eyes. But there was always that ache, lurking just below the surface, practically waiting for a trigger–say, catching a whiff of my mother’s perfume on a passing stranger–to make it erupt into a full-blown crying jag. It’s taken me years to accept the reality that I always will ache, I’ll always long for them. And accepting that reality has helped me tremendously. I don’t dwell. I don’t wallow. I simply accept and try to keep going. For the most part, it works.

I know the holidays will never be “the same”–but, then again, are they supposed to be the same? My childhood Christmases have a cherished place in my heart; they’re part of me, locked away and safe. But over the years, my family and I have forged our own traditions and, generally speaking, they are on the low-key side, which is just the way we like them.

This year, we were even lower-key than usual, so much so that we laughed about how low-key we were. “Does anybody mind if I don’t use the gold plate chargers, good china, and Christmas napkin rings?” of four years ago and “Is it okay if I buy Polly-O ricotta instead of fresh for the stuffed shells?” of two years ago became “I think this ham will fit in the toaster oven if I cut it in half” and “Let’s just eat in the family room instead of setting the table” this year.

We “decorated” on Christmas Eve with a pretty lighted garland over the mantle and a 3-foot artificial tree that we’ve had since our son’s first Christmas 17 years ago. My son called it the “puppy tree” because of its size when he was little, and that’s what we still call it. So, on years when we don’t feel like having a real tree–and there have been quite a few–we bring out the puppy tree. And this year, we just didn’t feel like going out and making an event of buying a 6-foot-tall Balsam Fir, and then having to spend hours decorating the bitch, which is a thankless task. Yes, I know I probably sound like a curmudgeon, but I consider decorating a Christmas tree a chore–drudgery even, in the same vein as cleaning the bathroom, only much more time-consuming and far less rewarding.

A couple of years ago, when my husband took down the decorations, he decided to leave the lights and ornaments on the puppy tree, and just put a garbage bag over it. So this year–that is, Wednesday night–it took about 45 seconds to set the tree up, and guess what? It looked beautiful.

Another tradition we’ve come to hold close to our hearts: opening presents just before noon. For years, my son would be in our room at the crack of dawn, listening to us say “Five minutes, honey” every five minutes for an hour or two. Thankfully, he’s a late sleeper, so we slept in, too, and now, he says “five more minutes” to us for an hour or two.

We opened presents at noon, ate Christmas dinner in the family room, and watched a couple hours of the Shark Tank marathon until 2 am. And the world is still turning.

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