The Holidays Are Over, Now What?

Christmas hangoverThe packages are opened, most of the gifts are already forgotten or broken, and the tree has that dried out, slightly bedraggled look.  It’s time to start thinking about putting away all those sparkly holiday decorations and dragging the corpse to the curb, but frankly, you just can’t face it.

There are still way too many days before school starts, and the kids have lost interest in all that stuff you searched high and low for ’cause they absolutely had to have it on Christmas morning.  Even that evil Zhu Zhu pet — the one they thought might cause cancer, but you practically grabbed it out of some woman’s hand at Toyland anyway — is lying abandoned under the bed that hasn’t been made since a week before vacation started.

Yes, you have a bad case of holiday hangover that doesn’t look like it’s getting any better ’til well into February.  HOLY BABY JESUS, why do we always forget that the season of miracles inevitably ends this way?

In my family’s case, we don’t even have a good excuse. We’re Jewish and don’t celebrate the big day, but somehow still manage to get caught up in the December gift-buying, card-sending, home-decorating big black hole of it all.  As I write this, the 5 of us are cozied up in a ski condo, where we’ve escaped to avoid that empty, disconnected feeling we get as we watch our neighbors enter the gates of Christmasland.

I’m uncomfortably short of breath here at 10,000 feet, and the thermometer that looks out on the slopes reads 7 degrees.  The husband and kids are forcing themselves out of bed and into many layers of puffy clothing to brave the mountain.

As they dress and drop pieces of wheat bread into the toaster, I catch snatches about the cold vs. the thrill of the downhill.  They dread it and love it, all at the same time. I prefer to remain condo-bound, reading, writing, and ignoring the looming credit card bills, blissfully relieved that I don’t have to confront my irrational fear of ski lifts now that they’re older.  Same old story.

So the question I pose is … WHY??  Why, in spite of overwhelming evidence, do we repeat the same behaviors every year? And call them traditions?  Why do we keep tuning in to the endless loop that plays A Christmas Story over and over?

Why do we invite the same uncles, aunts, and cousins, knowing full well that the same arguments will erupt, tempers will flare, feelings will be hurt.  Why do we buy gifts that will just miss the mark?  Why do the spaces between us grow huge, and so much less passable than any other time of the year?  Whatever our personal rituals, why do we do it? Is there some intangible, universal law that demands it?  Is it a modern right of human sacrifice?  Why are we powerless against the deafening white noise between late November and early January?  Seriously.

It’s the end of the day and my gang tumbles into the door dropping ski gear everywhere.  I make hot chocolate just like when they were little, and it tastes intoxicating.  Older son argues with daughter over who’s going to scout out the hot tub location. It’s resolved with a round of rock,paper,scissors.

Later, we head out to dinner.  The food is ordinary, but the kids dominate a spirited conversation about the true meaning of religion.  Husband and I smile as a warm, fuzzy feeling surrounds the table and the waiter offers up his opinion.

We return to the condo and they clash over which movie to watch.  The negotiation seems to last forever, and the winning title barely makes it past the opening credits before at least one of us falls asleep.

In a few days we’ll travel back to the airport to fly home, and the kids will bicker and wrestle in the car, just like they did as little ones (they warn me this won’t end until they’re too old to do it any more — at least 50 years from now).

And a few days after that, each of us will return to the details of our lives.  Older son to work and school in northern California, younger son to winter term in Israel, and daughter to the high school assignments she’s managed to avoid for most of winter break.

But for a brief moment — those days we call ‘the holidays’ — it’s as if the real world has receded into the background.  There is only this ritual celebration of family, and being together, and how the present is connected to the past and the future.  We are bound to each other, warts and all.  Tree or no tree, Christmas or no Christmas.

That’s why.  We fill the cultural framework with our own family stuff, for better or worse.  We let go of the all-consuming details that keep the gears of daily life moving forward and just be with each other.

Can’t stand how Aunt Sally chews with her mouth open?  Oh well, tough noogies. The beauty of it is that she’ll still be doing it next Christmas, and the one after that. If you’re lucky.

And your kids will fight, and the toys will cost more and get more complicated, but they’ll still break, and you’ll wonder — again — why we do it.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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