I spent a rainy Christmas Eve, 2006 in a shabby red and black Chinese restaurant near the Duomo in Florence, Italy. The menu was written in three languages with pictures next to each dish and designs that matched the kitschy, Oriental decor. I ordered a tropical bastardization of fried rice that came in a hull of scooped-out pineapple – a respectful nod to Italian misconceptions about Chinese cuisine. My family, with whom I’d spent every preceding Christmas of my life, were more than 6,000 miles away.
A few weeks earlier, my father and stepmother had announced they were splitting up, sending an earthquake through my family. I couldn’t quite bear to face the holidays at home.
I’d been studying in Italy for a year and a half, but it was time to go back to California and finish my Bachelor’s degree. I was sad to leave. So I stayed, and had a different kind of Christmas with my ragtag group of American, Japanese and Italian friends.
If I got any gifts that year, I don’t remember them; it was one of the best Christmases I’ve ever had.
I’ve been thinking about that Christmas a lot lately, in this time of year when our desires for things seem to hit a fever pitch – whether it’s the craving for a new piece of clothing or gadget, or our desire for our lives to look as perfect and happy as a family Christmas card.
The Buddhists believe that suffering in our world is caused by our desires and our attachment to them. We have expectations and if things don’t turn out that way, we suffer because we’ve glued ourselves onto the idea of how things could be.
As Christmas approaches, I think those of us who celebrate the holiday are especially vulnerable to this kind of suffering.
There’s a lot of wishing after things around this time, for one. And there are a lot of songs that tell us that “it’s the most wonderful time of the year” (cue music!).
Except… what if it isn’t?
There were a lot of reasons why I loved that Christmas in Florence. I was with my dearest friends and the time was precious, because I knew it would be a long time before I’d see them again. But there was a lightness about it that came from giving up on all expectations of what Christmas “should” be like. We ate weird combinations of potluck food pieced together from our disparate cultures. We hung out with other people’s relatives. We didn’t really have money for gifts. It was completely different and because we didn’t expect to get all the traditions right, we could relax and enjoy it.
Christmas can be lovely, but it gets so weighted down with “shoulds” sometimes. Whose house should you visit? Who should you buy gifts for? These questions often take up way too much brain space and lead us away from seeking out where we can find joy and how we can really show up for other people in the best way possible.
Take a look at this hilarious video by comedian JP Sears, in which he answers the question: “What’s Christmas about?” like this:
“[It’s about] anticipating which people are going to get you a gift and how much they’re going to spend on you. This is the main purpose of intuition. I need to get them a gift of roughly the same value… If I don’t spend enough, they’re gonna resent me. If I spend more than them, then I will definitely resent them.”
All the “shoulds” can mix up feelings. So can the barrage of holiday spirit, if we’re not feeling festive. There’s nothing more annoyingly incongruous than being stressed out from dealing with a real-life problem and battling your way through a busy store while a song blares about how great the holiday is, or an advertisement shows the image of a “perfect” Christmas.
When the holiday that we live doesn’t match the Norman Rockwell image, it’s hard not to feel like we’ve misused or ruined it somehow. Except, we haven’t ruined it, we’re just human.
To enjoy Christmas this year, I’m going to try to keep in mind that while it can be a joyful time, it’s also a very strange time when people are challenged in ways they aren’t during the rest of the year. It’s a time when people are often out of their element, having their personal boundaries tested and trying to live up to the holiday spirit of generosity and good cheer.
My advice? Don’t try to have a perfect Christmas. Just show up, take care of yourself and try to enjoy what is. If it isn’t “the most wonderful time of the year,” forgive Christmas. Forgive yourself. There are a whole other 364 days.
Breena Kerr is a journalist and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has been published in the Washington Post, Vice and others. Always fascinated by mysticism and spirituality, her global wanderings have exposed her to philosophies and traditions from many corners of the earth. In her spare time, she plans her next trip, practices yoga and studies her tarot deck.