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How I Finally Managed to put the Peace & Joy Back into Our Family Christmas

How I Finally Managed to put the Peace & Joy Back into Our Family Christmas

When the yuletide season bring back memories of trauma and sadness, it takes a lot of courage and hard work to start all over again

Ah, Christmas! The most wonderful time of the year. It used to be one of the happiest days of the year for me. Well, after my birthday, that is. But then my mom died in a tragic car accident a week before my 9th Christmas, and all the jolly and merry came to a halt.

It was 1988, and all I wanted for Christmas that year was a Baby Angel doll. My little sister and I drooled over these dolls all year. They were the most life-like dolls on the market at the time. The previous year, we asked for, and received, Cabbage Patch dolls. Life was great. Our anticipation of what would be under the tree on Christmas day was off the charts.

But instead of the anticipated joy of ripping open the presents and holding our dolls, we were given the dolls by adults who were devastated and broken by the death of their daughter and sister. We were on autopilot when we opened the presents and put the dolls in the suitcase we were living out of, as my dad was still recovering in hospital.

The rest of the house were all gearing up to bury mom after Christmas, so we definitely didn’t feel like playing with those dolls.

Christmas was never the same again. My father got entangled in some cult that forbade its congregants from celebrating Christmas and Easter, so we never celebrated Christmas again.

Twenty years later, I met my husband. He comes from a family who do the big, happy Christmas. I was filled with dread and anxiety. Here was an opportunity to put the joy back in Christmas, but it was also super triggering. My last Christmas celebration was 20 years ago. I wasn’t sure of how to even begin to enjoy it again.

My first Christmas with them was excruciating. It highlighted the loss of my ideal family Christmas and the broken relationships in my family. Their happy family made me feel isolated and lost.

My first few Christmases with this new family of mine was disaster upon disaster. The first year I made the mistake of thinking I could sit with my sister-in-law and her squad. They made certain I knew I had not yet earned the right, so I sat with granny-without-the-filter, who proceeded to tell me everything the family didn’t like about me.

The next year was even worse. There was the expectation of being happy, combined with my new knowledge of what the family thought of me. It was a laughably bad situation. I was expected to have fun with people I didn’t get on well with.

The next year I had an 11-month-old baby and was mostly trying to shield my baby’s ears from racist, homophobic and other problematic views and slurs. The year following that, I asked from the outset that the adults in the room remember that there are little ears around, and I didn’t want my child to be exposed to that. That went down like a lead balloon. I was labelled uppity and disrespectful.

This was followed by tears and meltdowns, all mine, at home the next year, so when the invitation to the family Christmas lunch was sent again, I decided to figuratively burn their house to the ground. I channelled my inner filter-free granny.

We decided to spend the next few Christmases on our own, away from our families. Once I stopped obsessing about the cosy, traditional Christmas and opted for Christmas our way, I started to feel snippets of Christmas past, when my mom was still alive.

There’s something magical about seeing Christmas through the eyes of your child. I’m grateful for my son and how letting him experience the magic of Christmas took me back to a time when Christmas was still magical and joyful to me.

Over the years, we’ve been invited to other families’ Christmases. I realised that not many families look and feel like the perfect families you see on Christmas TV ads. We’ve had may lunches where the people around the table were not related by blood, but bound together by carefully nurtured friendships. It became clear that not everybody spends Christmas with their family, and that’s okay.

This year I’m in my forties, and more confident about my place in the family I married into. I know how to handle the “outlaws”, as I fondly call them, this is probably because we’re all older and have less fire in us. In the spirit of the season, we’re going to give this family Christmas another go.

Also, my husband, their son, nephew, and grandson, is living with a rare disease, so all baggage has to be put aside for now, as we’re acutely aware of how limited our time with him is.

My outlaws and I are locked in a delicate truce, and in that spirit, we’ve had family lunch dry runs. I’m happy to report that we all walked away unscathed. We have a safe word to use if we need to get out, especially if the usual suspects become too intoxicated and lose control.

We’ve reset our expectations and intentions, and the matriarch has sent out her wishes to all for a Christmas do-over, so here’s to Christmas. May it be the start of a new dawn.

Rochelle Barrish

Change expert, Rochelle Barrish, believes that the big change equals big opportunity.

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