A family walks in the snow


This Isn’t The First Year My Family Has Put Christmas Traditions On Hold

Dec 16, 2020

As the world grows weary of COVID-19, and with the holidays upon us, I know there are many who are frustrated or anxious about losing out on social connection and traditions. We're left to consider new ways to celebrate and connect.

Reflecting on what Christmas will look like this year for my family has me thinking about all the lessons I gained from that first year of grief and first holiday season after my father passed away. We put expectations of our "traditional" way of celebrating on hold, and instead allowed ourselves to just be how we needed to be and feel what we needed to feel.

Thinking of all the ways many of us are grieving this year — be it the loss of a loved one, a job or the world as we knew it — I'm drawing on the freedom I found that year in letting go of an idea of how Christmas was "supposed" to be.

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It was 2015, and in the months and weeks leading up to the first Christmas without Dad, our family was growing anxious about how we'd feel, what we'd do and how we would pass through the waves of grief that were sure to come. I had been told this is normal. That the anticipation of what we will feel on the first time "through" each special occasion is different than how we will actually experience it. But sometimes it's just as anticipated; raw, empty, angry or full of sorrow and frustration at having to bear one more day without that person, let alone Christmas.

"... the greatest gift we decided to give ourselves was permission to feel, or not to feel, whatever came that Christmas."

My father had passed away unexpectedly in March and the months following his departure were a whirlwind of emotion and change. In the wake of his sudden death, I was pleasantly surprised with how easily my immediate family came together to make decisions, support each other and let (most of) the small or big things go. We gave each other space when we could, and tried to communicate what we needed.

So for Christmas, we would be a unit. We would be a family brought closer by our grief and our shared compassion for each other as we each navigated the world without him.

As Christmas approached, we discussed how we wanted to pass the days, feeling reserved about expecting our normal joy in the Christmas traditions we hold so dear. I grew up in a home that you could paint Christmas cards about. My parents built their log house in the woods with the loving intention of a forever home for our family and a space where the door was always open to anyone, especially at Christmas. But the thought of celebrating anything felt impossible, let alone seeing anyone beyond our immediate family. It’s not that my dad wouldn’t want us to enjoy the season, it’s that we simply didn’t have it in us. 

In the end, the greatest gift we decided to give ourselves was permission to feel, or not to feel, whatever came that Christmas. We told our loved ones we'd be spending it on our own and, as Christmas approached, we practiced accepting what comes, giving space to the expected and unexpected and just being. On Christmas Eve, we sat quietly at the back of the church as song and prayer carried us through the evening. Then we went home to sit by the fire and remember the man who loved to love Christmas with us and for us.

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On Boxing Day, we headed out of our small town to drive six hours through the snow to Quebec, to someplace different, yet familiar. To be on our own where no one knows about our pain, where we can talk about it, or not, on our own terms.

"We would rather have him than all of the Christmas getaways at all of the beautiful hotels in the world."

We went to an old iconic Canadian hotel we used to visit as a family when we were children. It's a place that holds memories so faint they bring solace, not pain. The place was full of Christmas splendor, with lights, a towering tree and a warm hearth in the lobby. Accepting luxuries like this, that his sudden passing had enabled us with, was a painful reminder of his absence. We're grateful and know we're lucky that he had so carefully planned for this unlikely set of circumstances — not everyone is so fortunate. But embracing those gifts was hard. We would rather have him than all of the Christmas getaways at all of the beautiful hotels in the world.  

As we passed the days together, we smile, and skate under the stars and marvel at the falling snow on sleigh rides through the forest. My niece, who was two-and-a-half at the time, looked up in awe at the hotel one evening as we walked in at dusk, and aptly named the place “Nana’s Castle." It was a castle for us — a metaphor for the refuge we created for ourselves, and an acknowledgment of the act of making space to grieve.

This year, we can't sing in church or travel out of province. Many of us are struggling with all the things that aren't possible this year. But my hope is that the lesson of giving ourselves permission to create safe spaces for all the emotions that come with the challenges we are facing can still be applied.

Article Author Katharine Hagerman
Katharine Hagerman

Read more from Katharine here.

Katharine Hagerman is a global public health consultant currently based in Cairo, Egypt, with her husband and their three-year-old son. She holds a master’s of public health from the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. During non-COVID times she spends summers ultra-running and teaching yoga in her hometown of Haliburton, Ontario. She occasionally writes a professional reflective blog turned personal musings page.

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