Guilt. (‘gilt) noun 1. the fact of having committed a break of conduct especially violating law and involving penalty; A jury will determine the defendant’s guilt or innocence. 2a. the state of one who has committed an offence especially consciously; His guilt was written all over his face. 2b. feeling of deserving blame especially for imagined offences or from a sense of inadequacy: SELF-REPORACH.To a good number of people in the world, Christmas is a time that is spent enjoying time with family, visiting loved ones, and sharing a meal, a drink, or both. Within that group of people, there are a number who include spending time at church, practicing their religious beliefs, as a part of their celebration. As well, there is a group that feels the exchange of gifts is a necessary part of this holiday.
3. a feeling of deserving blame for offences; Wracked by guilt, he confessed his affairs.- Merriam-Webster Dictionary
All of these are quite well known.
But there's another group within the group. This is a group who may not celebrate in the way the Hallmark-world wants them to. They aren’t typically acknowledged, and yet, they somehow suffer it out year-after-year.
Growing up, I knew about this lesser-known group. I had an inside track: my Mom.
For those who knew my Mom, you’re well aware how much she loved pretty much every holiday. She would decorate weeks in advance, and bake whatever themed cookies, treats and more to give out to friends, family, neighbours, and anyone who happened to be in proximity of our home (if you found yourself lost or had your car breakdown in front of the house, you were leaving with a bag of fresh baked goods!).
Despite this, there was a part of her that not many knew about - the dreaded family dinner.
In the last few years of her life, it became more and more obvious (at least to those closest to her) that these family events were a source of anger, resentment, and dread. We had many conversations about how they made her feel after we all parted ways to our separate households, and I gotta say, it didn’t sound great. There was a part of her that wished she could simply skip them altogether. But, there was a much bigger part of her that felt guilty for feeling this way.
The first Christmas after she passed, I worried about how things would go at our tri-annual family gathering*. I avoided Thanksgiving so I wouldn’t have to deal with the whole first major holiday sans-Mom thing. And to be honest, it was great! Everyone got along, things seemed to be a collaboration, and I left that day feeling good.
Then I fled the country for a while.
The thing about spending Christmas in another country, is that you learn how it is for others. I don’t mean this in the now I know how grateful I am to be Canadian sort of way that most people would assume, but in more of a holy noodles - we’ve been doing it wrong sort of way.
Aside from the excessive presence of Celine Dion Christmas tracks playing 24-7, the holiday season in Uganda was really about sharing time with family. For a good majority of folks who celebrated, this also included some sort of church service or services. It made me realize just how beautiful Christmas could be.
So, when I returned home a few years later, it was a rude awakening to confront those differences. Rather than a slower pace, filled with meaningful moments, it was less about the quality and more about the quantity. And that’s never a good mix.
In the nearly year and a half since I returned home, I have wanted to spend less and less time with family...or really anyone. Things changed from when I left to when I returned, and it hasn’t gotten much better.
This year, I decided I wasn't going to play that game. I was going to take back the joy of Christmas, and spend the holiday the way I actually want to. Of course, this lasted until about December 23rd, when the heavy weight of guilt started to set upon me. And guess what - I’m participating in the family dinner, once again.
The thing is - the meal will be delicious, the conversations will be fine, and it will be great to see everyone. But it’s so surface level. Nobody actually talks about anything of value. It’s small talk...for two hours. It’s an obligation for everyone! I know this because everyone else shows up 15 minutes before the meal is scheduled to begin and leaves the minute the dessert plates are cleared (if the even stay that long, citing any number of excuses to vacate the premises).
Today, as I drove home from a little Mama-Puppy bonding time, Coldplay came on the radio, and I erupted in tears. This year, I, too, know where my Mom was coming from. I feel the anger, the resentment, and the dread that she once did. I am my mother’s daughter whether I like it or not. And like her, I will never be able to stop the cycle, because, like her, guilt ultimately controls how I make decisions when it comes to family. Not my desire to engage with something or a whole lotta somebodies. Not my being swept up in the magic of it all. Guilt. And imagined guilt, born out of a sense of inadequacy, at that.
-the Orange Canadian
*We tend to meet for Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.