The Meaning of Christmas

I’ve spent a lot of Christmases alone and many of them too poor to buy gifts to send home to family. While living and going to school in Louisiana and New Jersey, and the years beyond of struggling in New York, I would venture to say that only 1/2 of the time was I able to go home for Christmas. Usually, that didn’t bother me much. I was studying theater and quite often I’d have rehearsals for some play that would impede holiday travel. In that sense, being “alone” was not alone at all. I enjoyed each and every “theater family” I became a part of. At Rutgers, we’d often have Christmas or Thanksgiving in a communal effort for whatever students were trapped in town without family. In Louisiana, I often went to a friend’s home and ate boudin stuffing and oyster gravy–things MY family had never heard of and would never ever attempt to make.

I’ll never forget one Christmas that I spent alone as one of the most meaningful times of my life. It was 1998 or 1999, and I was sad and lonely and had just been through a wreck of a breakup. I was living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana–so there was of course no snow. I was working at a hotel at the time and I felt even lonelier there–not many people stayed at a highway hotel that catered to businesses during the holidays. When I got off work at 11:00, I considered going to the local bar to pass my time, but I convinced myself otherwise. Something about dive bars on Christmas is… well. When you’re with friends, they are awesome; when you are alone, they are a little too much like living in a Tom Waits song–even for me. Instead, I went home and sat up all night reading Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. I sat up all night, fascinated. My loneliness had worn off around 2 a.m., but I didn’t want to stop reading. The next morning, on Christmas day, I called my grandmother in Arkansas and told her, “I think I might have found God.”

I don’t think I meant that in a sense that most people do when they say it. To me, “finding God” meant finding an abstracted idea of a higher power that permeates the human existence. It didn’t mean getting baptised by “Brother Jerry” at the Second Baptist Church. It didn’t have anything to do with church, in fact. Or with the Christian depiction of God. It meant finding something inside myself that felt good–something that seemed buried under the ashes like a phoenix. It also meant hope.

Many years and many Christmases–and many mistakes, no less–have passed since that revelation, but I always think of it on Christmas. The one time I was completely alone and yet I was completely happy. I wish I’d been able to hold onto that feeling in the following days and years, when I’d fall into relationships that were unnecessary and unwanted–just to be close to someone else. I wish I could have kept that sense of being “good enough” instead of coursing my way across the country many times in attempts to be just that. But I guess what I learned the most that Christmas has stayed with me in many ways.

This year, Christmas is again a poor one. In fact, it’s the poorest Christmas I’ve had since moving to California 3 years ago. That’s largely in part to my freelance work drying up completely a month before Christmas and Mark’s usual work also disappearing. It’s been a rough month in general, financially, and we’ve barely made it through paying bills and rent without having to take out bank loans to do it. I’ve felt stressed out and saddened that I couldn’t buy Mark something for Christmas–or the dogs–or my family back in Arkansas. But I’ve accepted it. Instead of “flipping out” or going crazy about it all, I’ve kept calm this year. I’ve kept hold of my inner strength and of an inexplicable hope that things will turn out okay.

I’m thankful that I have, because things have turned out okay. We made our bills without any loans, and my work should start picking up after the new year. I’ve made it halfway through another cold and destitute winter.

I realized this morning, though, that I’m not so poor after all. That Christmas that meant so much to me with Joseph Campbell’s book was important because it made me realize that I had myself to rely on. I had myself as a friend. And moreover, I didn’t hate myself as much as I’d done in the past. This year, I’m far from alone, even if I live in a remote location. I don’t have Christmas gifts to give to Mark and Denali and Tenaya–but I have them by my side. Tenaya is losing the ability to walk these days from hip dysplasia, and  for a while there I worried that she might not make it ’til Christmas. I’m so glad she did. I’m glad that she’s happy with ground hamburger as her Christmas treat instead of the big bone I’d have gotten her.

I’m also glad that we got Denali last year–just a week after Christmas. His presence has made my world a completely different experience. Being a mom to a Persian cat for 15 years did not prepare me for being a mom to a wolfdog puppy–in the least. I remember last year on January 3rd, the day we got the little round yellow ball of fur, cursing my life as I scrubbed vomit from the carpet in every corner of my office at 4 a.m. I remember sitting in the garage at different times, bawling my eyes out, because I “just couldn’t take it anymore.” I couldn’t handle the yapping, the neediness, the biting, and the general terror that Denali spread about his reign as a wee puppy. Now I look at this 90-lb. dog, and I laugh thinking about it. He’s still a complete mess–but he’s my mess. And he’s also my baby.

This year, like those others when I was less-than-fortunate, Christmas means a lot to me. More than it has on Christmases where presents were passed and big feasts eaten. Because of the lack of those things, I appreciate the people–and the dear souls–that surround me. I’m glad that I’m not alone on Christmas, reading a Joseph Campbell book–but I also know now that if I were, it would still be meaningful. Spending Christmas with my little unconventional family means more to me than any gifts that money could ever buy. I know that’s cliché, but as one who stands here and has lived it–I can say that clichés are often true. True meaning is a lot easier to find when you don’t have to dig through wrapping paper to get to it.

Merry Christmas. May your inner darkness find hope in the corners where hope hides, and may you hold on long enough to that hope until you finally find the love that you seek.

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3 Comments

  1. I remember a very dark Christmas, the year after I’d gone through the Master’s program at the Dallas Theater Center. I was demonstrating a new technology, closed-captioning, to deaf centers, nursing homes, and the like. It was basically sales and the market was already glutted. I traveled with a gay, deaf, bike-gang member in a huge RV provided by the company. There were NO sales and I was hungry and broke at Christmas. It was putting ketchup on a cracker kind of dinner. I was too proud to call home and say how bad it was. I do hold on to the thought that, like Dickens, there is a bit of a “divine” spark that inhabits all of us at this time of year and bonds us together in fellowship on this “journey to the grave.” I can always look back on that time as a watermark and compare it to my current circumstances. If I made it through that, this is a cinch. Thank you for your thoughtful and wonderful entry. I hope the four of you have a wonderful holiday. I keep up with your exploits from afar by FB. From my perspective, it seems an admirable lifestyle you’ve found. Keep the faith and peace to all of you this season.
    Tony Medlin
    an old classmate from LSU

    • Thank you much, dear Tony. I agree and I hope you are having a wonderful holiday as well. Peace to you and yours and much love!

  2. I love you and am so proud of you and am so glad to be your Mom, even though your Mawmaw raised you. I am the very proud parent of you, Cassy and Craig, Jr. and grandmother to Denali and Tenaya, Aiden and Sarah and mother-in-law to Mark and Sean. I could not ask for anything more. Merry Christmas and have a Wonderful New Year. I love you, Mom


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