I love this time of year: November means my birthday and Thanksgiving; December means Christmas. I’ve always enjoyed the traditions, the excuse to visit family, the excuse to drink to excess, and the Christmas movies. But I think the most important part of this season is the fact that, year after year, we look back on the years past.
Each year, when my birthday rolls around, I can’t help but remember what I’ve done in years past, like my 25th birthday celebration at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, or my 27th birthday, which I spent mostly alone at home with a brand new puppy who was slowly destroying said home. I can’t help but compare my personal state with that of last year’s as well as with what I dreamed it would be as a child. As the candles on the cake pile up, I think back on birthdays of youth, when my mom singlehandedly turned our kitchen into a birthday wonderland of colorful streamers and confetti. Similarly, my parents think back on my actual day of birth, and I get to hear the stories of an unexpected 4am delivery. At the same time, I think ahead to future birthdays: Will I live to see 45? Will Percy be with me when I’m 35? Will I really make it to Disneyland Paris for my 30th?
Thanksgiving has the same memory-laden effect. For me, Thanksgiving is about family—even if mine is too far away to get to see in its entirety every year. When we lift that weighty glass of champagne for a toast each year, my family can’t help but look both back and ahead to remember where we all were last year and what the next year will bring. This year, we’ll remember my grandmother, who passed last month, with whom we’ve had countless magical Thanksgivings. We’ll also look ahead to next year, when my parents will be living in their beautiful new house, with a dining room fit for HGTV. We stick to Thanksgiving traditions, like red jello and the breaking of the wishbone, remembering a time when my sister and I got legitimately upset over its fate. While we should always be thankful for what we have, it’s impossible to not look back with nostalgia to be thankful for what we had.
Christmas, though—dear Christmas—is the worst culprit. Having grown up without religion, my Christmas traditions are based around the tree, the stories, the movies, the food, and the family. I can’t possibly decorate or admire the Christmas tree without my favorite sentimental ornaments, each of which reminds me of its origin (which is often, “Mo-ooom, what’s this one from again?”). I can’t possibly decorate tree-shaped sugar cookies without M&Ms, which reminds me of decorating those same-shaped cookies as a child, surreptitiously—at least in my mind—licking the frosting off my fingers in between fits of sprinkle-filled decorating joy. Christmas morning forces us to reflect on Christmas mornings of yore and to dream of Christmas mornings of the future. Will I have a family with kids to deceive about Santa one day? Maybe. (God willing.) Will my sister and her family join my parents and I in Colorado next year? I sure hope so. While Christmas is about sharing with others, you just can’t avoid yourself.
It must be that the reason birthdays and Christmases are so magical for children is for more reasons than presents and Santa—perhaps it’s because they’re not haunted by their past. As adults, our holidays are overcome by our own memories. And movies like It’s a Wonderful Life certainly don’t help us escape that. I feel deep sadness for anyone who experiences loss on Christmas because I’m sure those memories, year after year, are haunting.
I hope that most people, like me, look back fondly on Christmases from childhood, relish in the same crappy movies year after year, share memories with family, and delight in the simple joy of a tree-shaped cookie.