The first time I ever had a panic attack, I was 13 years old, my parents were newly separated, and I was laying on the couch, staring at the Christmas tree. I didn’t know that what was happening was a panic attack and took it at mystical face value: these racing thoughts about death and dying meant I was having premonitions of my own death. My world went black except for the Christmas lights and I couldn’t breathe.
As an adult, I can recognize this for what it was: mourning the loss of my family. But at the time, I was certain I was going to die. And after that, Christmas became zero fun.
It’s pretty standard that you hear kids of divorce have difficulties at Christmas. The family’s split and you either get two super-duper fun and exciting present-opening days or you get two god-this-is-torture present-opening days. I chose neither. Stopped celebrating Christmas. Or at least I tried to.
I went snowboarding or traveled cross-country (or both) just so I could avoid the awkwardness of a holiday that meant nothing to me. So that my poor parents wouldn’t have to buy me presents I didn’t want and vice versa. So that I wouldn’t be around to witness all the damned arguing that goes along with my extended family being in the same room at once.
Avoidance. My coping skill.
My ex generally tolerated this … frugal bastard he was, he didn’t mind not having to buy me gifts. Or all the expensive decorations that would’ve gotten trashed in our myriad moves. He even got a trip to Turkey out of the deal. His parents hated it, though, so every so often, we would fly to see them and sit around eating red-and-green pepper salad and they would gift me with cookware that I had no intention of using (but the ex certainly made use of, god bless his housewifery intentions). And every year, I would say, well, that’s it: Christmas sucks and I’m not doing it again.
And then the Diva came along and I started to feel some sense of obligation to her. Her first and second Christmases were spent in California, looking at seals and hiking in the rain. We were avoiding the traditional holiday fetes but hadn’t yet figured out what we were going to replace them with. It worked because she was too young to understand.
But then her dad and I weren’t together and her third Christmas, he was demanding it be celebrated. He didn’t care how. Just that it would be. This worked a little because she was at kita and they did all the German Christmas things: St. Nick came to visit, and there was an Advent calendar tree, and they learned to sing songs in German and put on a pageant. My parents came to see us and brought a suitcase full of presents and we went to the petting zoo and generally made it out to be just another day, except the grandparents were there and it was fun.
It was enough fun that I thought maybe we should do it again this year. Except that I didn’t want to sit around in rainy Germany and I didn’t want to spend a shit-ton of money to fly to the middle of nowhere and go stir crazy at my parents’, where the only escape was to the corner bar, where I would likely run into people I never wanted to see after I left town at the age of 18. So I decided we’d fly to Lake Tahoe and I could rent a cabin in the woods and go cliff jumping and cross some things off my to-do list for the year. How selfish of me.
With six feet of snow in three days, the babe got a real taste of white Christmas. She’s been ice skating and sledding. Put a hat on a snowman. Built a snow fort. Trekked through snow piles taller than her. I’ve been snowboarding and some day soon, we’ll teach her how to ski.
But nothing else about this Christmas worked and so I have my doubts about doing it again. I forgot about family dynamics. About how when my family is together, we all revert into the roles we took on when I was younger, a role I’m not comfortable with anymore. About how each of us is a human with our own desires and needs and way of doing things and these wants are not at all compatible. My family couldn’t stop bickering. No one could do anything right in the others’ minds. I was miserable and everyone, Diva included, knew this.
At some point, I thought her excitement about the magic of the holiday might rub off on me. Instead, the family dynamic I moved far away to escape turned me into an unbearable beast. The six feet of snow stressed my parents out. The kid found her Christmas presents before Santa arrived so she doesn’t believe in some magical fairy tale dude (who she was doubtful about anyway when we told her, no, he didn’t fly in an airplane but in a sleigh with reindeer). So much for Christmas magic.
The thing is, as I think about what to do with her next year, there are two things in the back of my mind: 1. The need for third culture kids to have a firm family foundation and traditions, and 2. The need for my kid to grow up knowing love and tolerance. Right now, I feel like these two things are mutually exclusive. And I need to find a way to reconcile that they aren’t and give her what she needs. I just don’t know if that’s going to include Christmas with me and a tree.