Thinking about Family, Meaning, and Loss at Christmas

By in Essay

This year just doesn’t really feel like Christmas. That’s the cliché you hear a character mumble to themselves at the beginning of many a Christmas movie. Christmas malaise is real. The gifts, the shopping, the eggnog, the early-to-mid-December work parties: is that what Christmas is all about? I think it’s about that, but also about something deeper, hopefully. I can’t quite figure out what that something is. What makes Christmas meaningful?

I was raised Roman Catholic. We celebrated a Catholic Christmas where going to midnight mass on Christmas Eve was a given. Though in the 2000s we did get lazy and start going for a late morning mass on Christmas Day instead. One of my fondest childhood memories is from a Christmas when I was five years old in 1997, visiting my family in Bombay. We came home from midnight mass and I got to stay up late hanging out with my parents, my cousin, my aunt, my Nana, and Keith & Asif – my dad’s best friends. My cousin Rohan and I each got to open up one present that night, because it was past midnight after all and technically it was now Christmas day. We both got Batman action figures and we were thrilled. But more than the thrill of my favourite superhero (then and now) what lingers is the memory of being with my family.

I don’t believe that family is based on who you share DNA with. I am an only child and an immigrant, with no extended family a car’s drive away, so being a purist about the definition of family wasn’t an option for me. I love having friends be part of my family. Except when I do not. Choosing which members of your family to prioritize is often a painful experience for all involved.

I am very lucky to have many friends who love me, and who I love, but I have two people who will always do even more than just love me: my parents. Both of my parents have consistently been there for me. They’ve always done a lot to make this time of year feel special and to give it meaning, without being heavy-handed about it.

I think that’s why this year feels different so far. Or at least, why I’m feeling this malaise sooner than usual. Those blues do sometimes creep up on me. But this year is different. We aren’t decorating, and usually, we decorate quite a lot. My parents and I usually hang out and put up a festive and ostentatious Christmas tree which we pepper with the little kindergarten-y ornaments that I continued to make over the course of my childhood, along with kitschy finds from thrift stores and Hallmark. Decorating together has always been a centerpiece of the Christmas season for my parents and I. It’s become more difficult, on my end, to find a good time to do it each year. That’s made the experience a little less joyful in recent years, but once we figure out a good time to do it, it’s something that always feels like a part of Christmas.

This year my parents didn’t feel like decorating the tree or the house in general. I found out about a week ago when I asked them. I felt like I should have asked sooner. They were willing to decorate if I really wanted to, but if not, they didn’t feel like doing it this year.

A part of me wondered if this was some kind of test, to check whether or not I was actually into spending the time together. But I don’t think that was the case. I think that for my parents and I, it just doesn’t feel quite right to be joyous this year. At least, not in that way. You see, our beloved baby puppy -Tchibai Kuthrapali, Stitch- he passed away earlier this year. It was very sudden and very sad. He was so small. He was only five. Our poor little puppy. The trauma of his loss sometimes still hangs like a shadow, drifting in and out of sight.

We haven’t spent this year in a state of perpetual sorrow. But this time of year – Christmas – is certainly making his absence painfully present. I miss him often. I know my parents miss him even more. I don’t want Christmas to come and go without him there poking his little nose into the presents as they get unwrapped and continuing his effort to find a way to mission impossible himself a little bit closer to the mantle where his little doggie stocking was hung. My heart hurts just thinking about it.

My Nana is sick, too. She’s been sick for all of November, and we hoped the sickness would go away, but it hasn’t yet. My Dad has flown out to Ontario to take care of her and to try to set up in-home care for her there. When I started writing this, he had gone for a weekend. We had hoped things might not be too bad. He’s now been gone for a week as things were worse than we thought. He can’t leave her on her own until he’s sorted things out for her.

It’s December 21st today, and it’s looking like he won’t make it home this Christmas. My Mom is doing her best to support him, but she’s quite sad. I’m doing my best to support her, but I’m not as good at it as they are. This all feels like too large of a coda to add to what I have already said, but it is very much so a part of what is weighing on our hearts this season.

But Christmas will still come. And we are still here. At times like this I wish I were more Catholic than I actually am. I wish I could turn to scripture or sermon in search of some kind of solace. I may end up looking to Youtube or Google to see if someone else has spoken to this thing I’m feeling – and thank God for that option. But still, I am at a loss.

I didn’t think I would end up talking about Stitch when I started writing this, or about my Nana. I thought I might try to find out what a meaningful relationship to Christmas looks like to me now, as a twenty-six-year-old in 2018. As an Agnostic-Catholic who believes there is a magic to existence and that having a sense of the infinite as a comparison point to our finite selves is useful. As someone who sees the values in tradition but also hates dogmatism in almost any form. And certainly as someone who is looking for what is beautiful and significant in my own life, the lives of those I meet, and the lives of the people in the books and on the screens.

I don’t know what the meaning of Christmas is. I could pull a cliché out of a hat and then justify it with a poetic turn of phrase. But I won’t. I do not mean to be flippant or dismissive. I do not want to lessen the joy of others. I definitely do not want to do that. I’m writing from where I am this year, and this year, I haven’t found a satisfying answer.

I have lived a very lucky life as a happy little boy and a very privileged adult. I’ve had family and friends who love me, and I know I’ve been luckier than most. This Christmas is heavy, for me. It’s been a good reminder, that Christmas is heavy for many others. And for some, it’s heavier than this and heavy every year. I’m left thinking about those with fewer people to turn to for comfort and support, and dire circumstances upon them, during a time of year when everyone expects cheer.

I am sorry if I what I have written has made you sad. That is not my intention. I like Christmas-time a lot. And I like that people like it. It’s a beautiful time of year when thinking about what matters to us seems to come more naturally. Maybe it has something to do with Yule, or the winter solstice, or gathering to feast and finish the crops before they expire. Maybe there is a cosmic significance to this time of year. Or maybe we all just decided to give a shit. Either way, I do not know its meaning, but I think Christmas is a beautiful time of the year even if not always a happy one.