Content warning: Sexual assault and suicide
As a child, the holidays were magical times filled with love and good food. It was the time of the year that I got to reconnect with family, creating memories that I would cherish until the next year brought new ones. The holidays meant ice-skating and warm hot chocolate topped off with a marshmallow snowman. The holidays were receiving gross kisses on my cheek from old people in my family and retreating to the den to watch Christmas movies with my cousins. It meant staying up late but still waking up early because I couldn’t contain my excitement for what adventure was next.
Growing up made the holidays lose some of their magic. As I got older, I began questioning the idealistic portrayal of the holidays. At the age of 11, I was rudely awakened to find out that my own mother had been lying to me about this Santa guy. At the age of 15, I started wondering why we were celebrating a holiday commemorating the genocide of Native Americans. As the years went by, the enchantment that had previously come with the season was replaced with financial stress and complex family dynamics. I watched as my single mother struggled to provide my younger sister and me with the holidays she said we deserved, working herself to physical and emotional exhaustion. This season became the only time of the year when I got to see my father and brother. Eventually, even they faded out of the picture entirely, leaving me with the weight of their absence. As each holiday season went by, it felt like more things were going wrong and more people were leaving my life.
I became jealous of individuals who had big families and festive get-togethers during the holiday season. The families that went to pumpkin patches together or wore cheesy matching outfits to open presents. Everyone else had this seemingly picture-perfect, Hallmark experience of the holiday season, and it just made me feel like there was something wrong with my experience. My peers were on the beaches of Hawaii while I was dealing with a large family argument going on at my house. I had this romanticized notion of what the holidays were supposed to look like, but my reality didn’t fit into that box. I carried on and tried my best to conceal how painful the holidays actually were for me.
By the time I was an adult, the holidays had become well-established as an all-around stressful time for me. So when I became a victim of rape, the trauma only intensified the stress of the holiday season. I kept the assault and trauma to myself even though I was silently struggling with severe depression and anxiety attacks months after the incident. I believed that if I just suppressed what had happened to me, I could move on, but when the holiday season brought new family arguments and financial pressures to my already fragile state, I broke. Everyone around me was filled with holiday cheer and had no idea about the darkness that I was struggling with because I had been pretending that I was OK. I was only 19 and had been faking that I was all right for so long. I couldn’t do it anymore. On Christmas Eve I was admitted into the emergency room after I attempted to overdose on antidepressants. I spent Christmas Day in the hospital, followed by a psych evaluator forcing me to spend a few days in their overnight care center. It broke my heart because I wanted to open up to people, but I was so ashamed and afraid of being stigmatized, especially during a time coined “the most wonderful time of the year.”
I hate the holidays, but not because of what happened to me. While I would never wish what I went through on my worst enemy, dealing with the pain forced me to learn how to nurture my mind, body and spirit. Through opening up, becoming vulnerable and being honest with myself I realized that the holidays are just a facade. I realize now that I had internalized this idealized notion of the holiday season fed to me through commercials, movies and music. My idea of the holidays was clouded by a romanticized notion tied to material possessions and the old-fashioned nuclear family. Rather than opening up about my mental health, I felt the pressure to present a polished, unobtainable version of myself to the outside world amid my suffering. I finally realized that despite this capitalist-driven season trying to shove the holiday spirit down my throat, it was OK to feel the opposite.
I have learned that I do not need a picture-perfect family or extravagant gifts to celebrate those whom I love. Each year I grow and redefine what the holidays signify to me, but today, the holiday season has evolved into a time when I process the year I’ve had and celebrate what I’ve been through. Whether that means grieving, laughing, crying or reminiscing, I honor how I feel. I don’t fit into the Hallmark picture that I once looked up to, and that is OK because the concept is an unachievable fantasy sold to society for profit.