This is a joyous time of year for so many people. As I write this, the last Advent candle has been lit and the first Hanukkah candle was lit last night. Families travel far and wide to come together to celebrate, and last-minute shoppers hope to get those few remaining presents to check off their lists. While this all sounds like an exciting and fun time, it is also a difficult season for those who have lost someone or are alone.
In the years since the passing of my grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles, I have sometimes struggled to remain merry for the sake of my family. Sometimes a situation sparks a memory and I get a bit emotional, but I hold it together for their sake.
I had a dream the other night that reminded me of my Christmases past. At first all the faces were hazy but, as I began to focus, I saw my maternal grandfather, my father’s parents, aunts, and uncles all seated around the main table. Off to the side I sat with my sister and cousins at a smaller table. Everyone was laughing and eating. This was pretty much my Christmas Day every year as we celebrated at my aunt’s house.
The night before we had stayed up late at my house, celebrating Christmas Eve with deli salads, cold cuts (liverwurst was my favorite), and marinated herring, which was to be eaten at midnight for good luck. These were traditions from the German side of my family. For dessert, there would be cakes, cookies, and the traditional Christstollen. Stollen is a Christmas bread filled raisins, candied fruit, nuts, and covered in sugar icing. I was told to have a piece of that for good luck as well.
When I woke up, I felt melancholy thinking about how most of the people in that dream were gone. Only my cousins, sister, and I are left. Now we gather around the main table and our children sit off to the side. When the kids were younger, our parents were alive, but now they are all gone on my side of the family. Luckily, my wife’s parents are still with us, and it is a joy seeing my kids with them.
So, I had been thinking about that dream so much, and the next night I dreamt of a different Christmas. This dream was a wish fulfillment. Everyone from my first dream was there, but now all the younger generation was there too and sitting at the same table. Great grandparents were talking with the kids, and I sat there smiling and feeling like my whole family were finally together on Christmas Day.
Alas, when I woke, I realized it was a dream. The surreal beauty of seeing my grandfather talking to his great grandson, of seeing my maternal grandmother – who died before I was born – talking to my children, was definitely a wish fulfillment. Unfortunately, this will never happen, and I have come to terms with that.
Every family faces similar situations, and I know one day I will be gone, my kids will be sitting at the main table with their spouses, and their children will be sitting at the small table. It is the way of the world, but it still makes me wish if only that dream could have been real, even for just one Christmas.
As each year passes, the traditions keep changing too. Now my wife’s Italian traditions have taken over Christmas Eve, and the German food has been replaced by Italian food. I didn’t fight this change because I like Italian food, and my kids don’t really like or eat the stuff my mother used to serve. One year I went out and got bought herring and stollen, but both sat untouched by anyone but me.
I am grateful to be with my family again this Christmas Eve. It is some consolation knowing as the candles on the table flicker with a gust of air from apparently nowhere, that it is proof that my whole family is really together. They are all in the room with us and watching us continue to be together. Feeling their presence helps me get through the night and the next day.
My wish is that everyone can be with those they love this year. So, whether you are sitting down with 25 people or it is just the two of you, savor the moment as much as you savor the repast. And if you know someone who is going to be alone, why not invite them over to join your celebration. They will appreciate the offer more than you could ever know.
Happy Holidays to one and all!