Christmas past

Two weeks ago, I was convinced that I had this Christmas thing sorted. I was feeling excited.  I was thinking of putting up a Christmas tree and decorations, there was even talk of presents!  When I consider the place I was in, at this time last year, that felt like a huge improvement.  But then, the stirrings of Christmas past started to come back to haunt me.  I have few memories of Christmas as I was growing up; but what I do remember, is full of pain, contradictions, unmet expectations and false hope.

What do you see when you look at the typical Christmas imagery?  Happy families, snow, Christmas trees, presents, togetherness, joy, peace, and so on.  These all help to build up expectations of what Christmas should be.  There is a huge pressure from society to meet these expectations; and it’s almost impossible for a regular family to meet them, let alone a dysfunctional family like the one I grew up a part of.

I remember Christmas as being a burden for the family… there was so much money needed for presents, food and alcohol.  The mother would save throughout the year in order to be able to fulfil the work and family commitments that were expected of us… we must keep up the illusion of the perfect family after all, mustn’t we!  Those commitments involved hosting parties where the Summer heat, alcohol and music lead to a lowering of inhibitions and an increasing level of raucousness.  I still have nightmares about the laughter from the parties.

Thinking about the presents we received, it was odd.  As there were two boys and two girls in the family, we often got the same presents, but different colours – my brothers would both get the same plane, but from different countries; the sister and I would get the same doll, but hers would be brunette and mine would be blonde.  I find that a little odd, especially as the sister is five years older than me.  Did she get inappropriately younger gifts, or did I get inappropriately older gifts?  I’m not sure why, but I get a sense that the gifts were another way different ones in the system felt that they “owed” the parents, and that we were disposable, or easily exchanged with the sister.  It seems like we weren’t encouraged to feel a sense of individuality or separateness from each other.

Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful to have received gifts, especially when I know that so many go without. I’m only trying to show how easily children can pick-up on undercurrents and implied messages.  I doubt that the mother was purposefully trying to invalidate any of us with the gifts, but that is what happened.  I have a feeling she did it in the interests of treating us equally, and it’s only with my now distorted hindsight, that I see it in this way.

Presents have always been a triggering and negative thing for me.  The act of someone giving me a gift immediately raises questions about the persons motivations… What do they expect in return?  What have I done that is worthy of receiving a gift?  What do I get the person in return?  What is appropriate to give?  What do I have to do to keep their respect, or is it all a game and they’re teasing me?

I’m getting better at accepting gifts as they were intended, but it’s still a struggle.  Part of me continues to go back to the old days where getting a present was a reward for being a “good girl”.  This is possibly why Christmas was always so difficult… different people would give me presents, and I couldn’t figure out what was needed to pay them back.  It’s for this reason that I like the change in focus away from gifts… which reminds me of an argument that I continually had with Matthew.  He was always worried about not being able to compete with his now ex-wife because she could afford to give the boys gifts.  I would always argue that his place within his boys life was secure as long as he provided them with love and safety.  But I don’t know if that’s true, I’d like to think it is, but peer pressure and societal expectations can be a great influence.

Sometimes I hate society.  Then, I’m reminded of the good it can do as well – Geek girls ACTIVATE! I know the first action was one of bullying, but the response was what mattered.  It reminds me that there is good out there too.

Now playing: Falling Slowly – Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová
via FoxyTunes


26 thoughts on “Christmas past

  1. These ghosts of Christmases past are real SOBs the way they sneak up on us like this, eh? I know my therapist would tell me to remember that they are just that – ghosts. Easier said than done sometimes, I know.

    I do think it’s good that you can look back and see that how you felt may not have been what was intended. That’s a definite sign of progress.

    I’m sorry that the giving and receiving of gifts is so hard for you. I had no idea. Please try to remember that, here and now, most people give gifts because they find something you like, or think you might like; or because they thought of you when they found that gift; or because they want to say thanks for being a friend, and want to do something nice for you… or a whole host of other positive reasons. That’s how it is for me, anyway. Aside from my father, I don’t do gifts out of “obligation”.

    Please take gentle care during this “festive” season. ((hugs))

    • Hi Kerro,

      Yeah, the ghosts can be nasty. I think I have a little distance on them still, as I can still see the actions for what they were, rather than warping them into something different.

      I’m getting better at the gift thing, but it’s still dicey if it comes from someone I don’t know all that well. Even kindness from someone I don’t know well, raises my suspicions 🙂 I can give gifts alright, but i’m always worried that the gift won’t be “good enough”, so I often chicken out.

      I’ll take care, if you will… (((hugs)))

      • I used to worry that gifts I give wouldn’t be “good enough”, but not so much anymore. Afterall, when someone has gone to the trouble of giving me a gift, I’m usually delighted, so why wouldn’t the other person feel the same? Besides, “good enough” for whom? 😉

        • I remember the parents faces when the presents weren’t right. They sometimes used me as a sick pay-back thing… each of the parents would buy gifts for us children to give the other parent, we then had to chose what present we were to give. They were usually small gifts, but as their marriage disintergrated, there was sometimes a present in there that was a jibe, sarcastic or pay-back. I often ended up with that present.

          So now, the gift has to be perfect and for that person, or I freak.

          Yeah, issues… I have ’em.

          Take care,

  2. Reading this, I can really understand how the giving of gifts would be asscoiated with negative things. That makes a lot of sense.
    I personally don’t celebrate Christmas and I haven’t for most of my life. I remember maybe one Christmas and I remember being jealous that my baby cousin got more gifts. Isn’t that a sad commentary? When I see Christmas stuff now and people wish me a merry Christmas I say “thank you’ to be polite but I’m just annoyed and ready for it to be over. I think it’s all hypocritical. Not you guys! I just mean the whole image of it doesn’t match up with how people really act. Since joining this community it has really amazed me how triggering the holidays are for people who have been abused and people with DID. So now I hate the holiday even more because I think about all of the people that feel hurt right now. Mental issues always seem to get stirred up by holidays. I think we need to create our own times for celebration, times that aren’t based on any outside pressure, they’re just for us. Anyway, I didn’t mean to get on my soapbox, I just feel mad that I can’t go back into the past and fix things. I worry about how you’re going to be during the visit and I’ll be fretting about you 🙂

    I didn’t know you a year ago, but I’ve seen what strides you’ve made since I have known you, and I you’re a strong, amazing woman CG! Make your own memories this year.

    • Hi tai,

      Please don’t fret, I’ll be fine.

      I usually tell people that I don’t “do” Christmas. It’s funny seeing their reactions; some say that they’d prefer that, while others look horrified. I try not to hate the holidays, as they do bring joy to people as well. It’s not the holidays as such, but the pain of the past and the expectations of the present that can be difficult.

      I’ve been told several times that the key is to create new traditions around the holidays, but I’m not so good at doing that so far. But I like your idea of creating new times – sort of like people talking about a non-birthday.

      Thanks for the vote of confidence tai 🙂

      Take care of yourself,

  3. For me, I think the greatest difficulty was in understanding that I really didn’t ‘dislike Christmas.’ I disliked all the chaos that took over my mind during Christmas… for years and years after it was all over. It felt like having yet another, potentially fun part of human life stolen from me. Yup. And I if acknowledged one more way they’d hurt me to the core of my soul… I would die. That’s how I felt. like I would die if I had admit that yes, they’d taken my joy here, too.

    And honestly, I did die, in a way, when I finally sayed, “You stole from me.” The thing about death, though, is that rebirth begins immediately… and I have experienced that death/ birth thing many times… so once I acknowledged that yes, trauma had stolen Christmas as well I had kind of a lull, and then I started to think, “Well, then. Now that we’re all on the same page about that, what shall we do to make life meaningful, today?

    That’s always a turning point for me in the continuum of healing–when I am able to ask myself what I will do about solving a problem… or disappointment. Asking myself the question always brings me into the present, and I see how I am… and decide what I want to keep, and what’s not worth keeping, anymore.

    Realizing how often I’d grieved for the life stolen from me, I wondered, this year, if I was ready to resist feeling guilty for not remaining true to my ‘painful Christmas season’ tradition. It had become a tradition, of it’s own, over time. And I decided that yes, I was ready to let go of that tradition.

    So there’s a little Christmas here, this year. But I fell in love one of Santa’s Elves, so I suppose it was inevitable that I would eventually lose my hard-bitten veneer…


    • When I started writing this post, I titled it “Grieving Christmas past”. That was going to be the focus, grieving what would never be, no matter how much I hoped and wanted it to be different. But then, I got caught up in the past; so much so, that it changed the focus of the post. I might have another go at writing it in the next day or two, because I think it is important.

      I hate this season, because I hate the dysfunction that’s so obviously hung out and had a party in my head for the last three to four years. I don’t like it. I resent it. I know that I’ve always reacted badly to Christmas, but it’s only been with the healing that I’ve joined the dots surrounding my reactions.

      I think the key to working through anything like the holidays, is the grieving process. I’m not sure what grieving is going to look like for me, as I’ve never done it, or understood it.

      Your point about the ‘painful Christmas season’ is a good one. This year I was very aware of trying not to think myself into a bad place by thinking to much about the negative experiences I’ve had in the past. But, there also has to be a level of reality around what is happening. Each of us is at different stages in our healing. I’ve barely started connecting with any emotions, so I realise that I might not be ready to move past the Christmas experiences, as I might be dismissing something too quickly. I also need to be aware of not wallowing in misery, because it’s a familiar place to be. Awareness and balance continue to be vital in healing.

      I’m really glad you and JJ are having a little Christmas. I hope it goes well for you both.

      Take care,

      • That’s such a good point, CG. I am in a very, very different place in my healing… and I forget that not everyone realizes I’ve just come through 20 years of intensive psychotherapy, a divorce, the loss of my kids, etc., etc.

        I’m old. I think the every days teach me as much as therapy did. But putting my life together is what my life is about, now. And so that’s where my mind works.

        I certainly haven’t always felt this way. Ha… I’ve seldom felt this way. Who am I kidding? 😉

        wishing you good vibrations.


        • You’re not old Meredith… it wasn’t that long ago you were talking about rolling around in the Autumn leaves!

          I appreciate what you write, as it helps to give me a sense of hope that healing can happen. There will be bumps, hurdles and obstacles along the way, but it’s possible.

          Even if you seldom feel this way, you’re feeling it now – enjoy it 🙂

          Take care,

  4. I think everyone here has contributed some very good points and I can understand it being a very difficult time and that is true for a lot of people, not only survivors.

    You don’t need to do the “Traditional Christmas” of trees, presents, food etc if you don’t want to, just do what you want to do. I am sure years gone by, before the days of the Warehouse, Farmers and credit cards it was not that. In fact I could go on a huge tangent about the origins here, but that is not useful.

    When I go home ‘for Christmas’, driving up Christmas day, it will be a day or two with the family, no presents and either a big lunch or dinner. The parents are surrounded by pine trees so Dad may cut down a branch to fill Mums need to decorate. To me it is just a day everyone gets off and when I was growing up, we did less farm work. So in essence it is just another holiday, we could do the same thing in June without looking too weird.

    For some people obviously that is not possible, but then there is no rules on what you can do. Some Christmases where I have been working over the holiday period I have slept in, cooked a feed and read a book.

    Do what you want to do. Go for a walk and take photos and spend time with Winnie??

    • Hi ya,

      You’re right, this time isn’t only tough for survivors. At work today, my team leader was saying that her husband had decided to declare Christmas over for the year… he’s a retired History professor who is usually good natured, if somewhat reclusive. They’re both exhausted by keeping up with the various grandchildren, and want the family time without the drama.

      Tangents can be interesting 🙂

      The gathering that you describe is the sort that I always dreamed of. My brother and I always used to joke that is wasn’t a real family gathering unless there was blood, sweat and tears… Any move away from that would be good.

      My mother has come up to be with me for Christmas. We’ll probably end up spending the day in a very low key way. Winnie will be in cat blissland because of the hot turkey she’ll beg from us. I have a big stack of books to check out as well – everything from trashy romances through to biographies. So, I can stay distracted.

      Thanks for the reality check and support 🙂
      I hope you have a restful Christmas.
      Take care,

      • No problem with the reality check and support. Friends, even if they are only from the internet are there for support.

        “usually good natured, if somewhat reclusive” Isn’t that the definition of a History Professor?? Well no doubt he will know the origins better than me. It is partially Germanic Pagan and mostly of Roman origin. Something to find out??

        Well it is good your Mum has come up to spend Christmas with you. What I was trying to point out is Christmas is just a holiday and it is what you make of it. (The Christians will cringe at that comment.) If you don’t like a part of it, you are under no obligation to use it.

        Biographies sound interesting, tell me the good ones. I am not sure about the trashy romance novels though…

        Well you have a good December break, take care of yourself and try and enjoy it as much as Winnie will.

        • That is indeed the definition of a History Professor. He even looks like a professor…

          Yes, I realise Christmas is what you make it. I was getting good at that in the early stages of my relationship with my now ex-husband. I need to get back to that.

          I can give you the titles to the trashy romances if you want 🙂 I’ll see how my concentration goes, and see what I can read.

          Take care,

  5. hi castor 🙂 great post! you bring up so many good points that i think aren’t often thought of consciously about giving and receiving. but first of all, i want to say, i love the movie “once” that you are listening to that song from 🙂 what a great film and what wonderful music!

    but about the gift giving and receiving discomfort, i think that if you grew up in an environment where you felt that you weren’t appreciated or honored for the unique and special person that you are, that even if that’s not what your mom meant by her presents, i think you feeling that way makes sense. i remember as i grew older, the presents my mom gave me made me feel increasingly invisible. the more disconnected we were, the more self-absorbed she was, the more silent and removed from her i became, the more the presents she got me became things “she wanted” which just made me feel that much more alienated when present exchanging happened. not to talk about myself instead of you, all this is to say, i do think that present giving times can be a chance for the real dynamics of the relationship to become more obvious.

    another thing i noticed in what you wrote, is about the idea of giving having been something that carried with it a message of obligation. that giving wasn’t just an unconditional expression of caring about you, but implied you were “supposed” to do something back. i think that true giving and generosity don’t have any expectations attached. if we really care and just want to give to each other, we don’t get mad if they don’t give back, unless there is already an imbalance or inequality that needs to be addressed (like if we’re doing all the giving in the relationship), then that’s it’s own problem. but i don’t think it’s fair to place those expectations on people. of course i say this as a recovering “over-giver” 🙂

    safe hugs to you, castor~ and my best wishes to you for a happy holiday with new memories that you give to yourself, outside of family, away from expectations, beyond old painful memories, times that are yours – for you – for your happiness – with no strings attached 🙂

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences katie. I appreciate hearing how others have coped with this sort of thing, as it helps me understand and validate what I’m going through.

      I’ve rarely experienced someone giving me something, without an agenda or ulterior motive. I’m used to birthdays, Christmas and so on, being a chess game of give, take, compare and deciding the results. Just recently my sister and father had a large argument, as my sister didn’t show the appropriate level of thankfulness for receiving a gift from his latest girlfriend. There is no joy in giving a gift, when the results are so carefully weighed.

      It’s all very sad really…

      Thank you for the hugs and good wishes… sending you warm safe hugs, best wishes and positive thoughts for the holidays…

      Take care,

  6. Wow CG. This is a really deep post. I’m sorry your past was filled with so many contradictions. I think for me there were contradictions too, but since my abuse was not in my family, I was able to keep the family stuff protected. I cannot imagine how things would be if I had been in your shoes. that said, I hope you know that things can be different. Kerro’s post came to mind because she is hoping for the a different future with respect to Christmas. I think for me things changed when I had kids. To see their eyes light up and for them to be not abused kind of is what has made it okay for me.

    • It’s odd that you say this is deep Paul, as I saw it as a really shallow and jumpy post… My perceptions about what I write are often skewed.

      I can’t imagine how I could have coped in your shoes. I’m glad you survived what happened, and that you are now moving firmly towards healing.

      I know things don’t have to always be the way they were in the past. As I’ll never have children, I won’t know the experience of seeing Christmas through their eyes. But, I can go down to the park and see the children run around with shrieks of laughter. I can walk by the river, and watch the ducks waddle around, looking for a treat. I can do seemingly simple things, that can change my view of what this time of the year means.

      Take care,

  7. Gifts are hard for me too but surprise gifts are even worse. I hate wrapped gifts and hate it even more when I’m unwrapping it in front of the person who gave it.

    The other day my roommate cleaned the snow off my car and I thought, I should make him dinner. I figured I owed him something. Dinner wouldn’t have been made begrudgingly, I would have enjoyed it. Still it would have been with the idea of repaying him for the simple act of cleaning the snow off my car. Even simple gifts feel as if they should be repaid.

    I try not to get too attached to gifts in case something happens to them. It hurts too much to think I’d like the gift only to have it taken away.

    • Oh yes, surprise gifts are the worst. I will always try to find out what the gift is before I open it – preferably days before the gift is given to me.

      I’m the same with that feeling of owing others for any act of kindness. I never feel as if people owe me for anything I do for them, but I always feel as if I owe them for things they do for me.

      It’s odd, I prize the gift, but I react with resignation when it’s taken back or destroyed. There are some presents I protect, and I value them all, but there’s an odd sense that they will be taken away at some point. The best thing I can do is hide the gift, or pretend that it doesn’t matter to me.

      I’m sorry you get similar feelings Austin, but thank you for sharing them with me. It helps to know that I might not be alone in all of this.

      Take care,

  8. Hi CG. We only do the prezzies and some decorating unless the kids want something else, too. We normally never buy presents for each other for the same reasons you wrote about feeling funny about them. We don’t celebrate our birthdays either, I guess because both of us were abused.

    He has his memories of his awful, abusive Christmases and I have no memories of any Christmas until 1998. I don’t have any pictures, either, but my mom used to have some.

    This year we did a lot more decorating and the kids are much happier and excited. Working through the pain of memories, or absence of them is taking its toll on both of us. They are so happy and we don’t understand why. It’s hard faking our way through this week especially.

    I understand the problem of receiving gifts and wondering what the motive behind it is, but it sounds like you are starting to handle it better.

    My daughter made a ton of tiny Christmas books, around 1×1 inch with pictures of angels, trees, snowflakes, holly, etc., and she said she is going to pass them out randomly to people in the halls today. That’s goodness, and I don’t understand where that came from for her.


    • Hi Lisa,

      I’m sorry you and your husband struggle with all of this too… one moment at a time… plus loads of funny movies. Funny movies help, I’m sure.

      Your daughters goodness comes from a place of being loved and feeling secure. It’s her, it’s her parents, it’s her environment. It’s good… also healing for you to see, maybe?

      May Die Hard and Father Ted treat you well.

      Take care,

  9. As usual, I cannot say what I’d like to say. Instead I’ll tell you that what you wrote resonates for me. The ripple effect of past traditions is powerful. There can be a lot of weight attached to gifts and rituals and clawing your way out from under it isn’t as easy as pasting “turning that frown upside down.”

    As shitty as this sounds, my policy with the holidays and other times when the dissonance between my feelings/reality and the generally accepted feelings/reality is most acute is to just white knuckle my way through it. I grew tired of trying to change, so now I simply grit my teeth and remind myself that it’ll be over soon. To that end, Dissociative Identity Disorder serves me well.

    I hope that doesn’t come off as negative. Mainly, I just want to acknowledge your feelings and let you know that, like so many others, I understand.

    • Hi Holly,

      No, you didn’t come across as negative… just honest about how difficult this time of year is. There’s no doubting it is difficult for many people – whether they have a mental health issue or not. Those sayings are dismissive and are rarely helpful. It may work for some people, or for a short time; but they have a tendency to encourage people to gloss over and suppress the issues, rather than deal with them.

      The white knuckle ride through the holidays can be rough. I hope it passes for you quickly this year.

      Take care of yourself… grab those calm moments when you can and make the most of them.

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