Bittersweet Reflections on the Holiday Season

Quinton with Santa Claus
photo by joyce skinner

When you are young enough, you learn that the holidays fill some (older) people with a feeling of melancholia tugging at the frayed ends of their sweaters. This was a concept that, at the time, could be comfortably kept at arm’s length. The young receive this kind of information with a certain removed sympathy, not unlike news of a crop failure in the steppes of central Russia (a shame they didn’t get more rain), or a setback afflicting a distant relative you’d never met in person (broken hip? what a bummer) Too bad, we thought, with lighthearted disregard for our good fortune. 

Then the thorny business of living, the gravity of years, and the claws of experience take hold. The years pile up like unwelcome contraband, in layers of loss, until one day you’re looking at yourself on the digital trail of Facebook snapshots, and there it is: that wary look in your eyes, the mark of the decades. You stare out, and the moment before the picture was taken, you were thinking, How did I get here? How far along this path am I, anyway? 

The holiday season can hit us hard in this part of the world, where we seem to be on the raw edge of the frozen end of all things. The stark plumes of breath in the car in the morning, that purplish tinge to the winter sky, the crunch of downtown sidewalks as we count down the days to the New Year (another one) with that delicate apprehension that comes with experience. Who knows what unpredictable things will happen in the next orbit around the sun, before the next holiday, the next reset? 

But then you remember that the holiday season isn’t there solely for those kissed by nothing but good fortune. Behind the family photos and the gleaming lights is the messy stuff of life we all share: the hardship and hurt that we think of when we reflect back. There are those we lost and those lost to us, and yet this doesn’t tell our entire story. 

There, too, amid the memories is a grandmother’s voice, the shimmering wrapping paper under a tree decades gone, the lurch in a young heart considering what it will soon mean to go out into the world on one’s own. There’s a reason those holiday bells also make the most hardened heart lurch, even in secret. 

Because of course it’s no coincidence that our holidays happen in the winter months, in darkness, when it feels all things might be lost. It’s then that we have the courage to look back on our lives, and the very real spirit of rebirth that underpins the best in our faiths, philosophies, and spirit. 

Then, finally, the deepest truth: That a tinge of gentle melancholia comes with experience. Even as we’ve made the best of what life has offered, and when we’re fortunate enough to look ahead with light and optimism, there are landmarks in the territory behind that inspire bittersweet reflection. When the sun is shining on the frozen, snow covered lakes, those memories also give us the heart to go forth.