Why It Doesn’t Really Feel Like Christmas to Me

When I was younger, we used to spend Christmas at my grandma’s house in the country. It was a big old farmhouse, filled with spiders and dust and a whole bedroom of mysterious collectibles that belonged to the grandpa I never met.

Along the upstairs corridor there was a window, its sill scattered with ornaments and sprigs of plastic flowers in glass jars. And every Christmas Eve, I used to sit and stare out at the darkening sky, straining to hear the sound of Father Christmas’s sleigh flying overhead.

I remember the feeling in my stomach, that big ball of excitement and tantalising hope at what was coming; a feeling that, strangely enough, never really ended up complete or satisfied by the close of Christmas Day. But it was a wonderful feeling nonetheless, and one that had always returned by next year.

In 2008, on Christmas Eve, I sat and waited on the stairs of my house in London until my dad came through the front door. It was dark outside, but the house lights were off. He walked into the living room and started crying instead of speaking.

Being told that your mum is going to die is never easy. Being told on Christmas Eve makes it even harder. And two weeks later, as I stood in the rain at the side of a grave in a pair of black Italian heels belonging to my grandmother, I’d never felt so bereft of Christmas spirit.

mum and me mantelpiece

It’s four years later now, and I still don’t remember that feeling from my youth. Or, rather, I don’t let myself feel it.

For four years I’ve watched the tinsel and the bobbly reindeer headbands, heard the carols and the corny Christmas songs, and seen the excited faces of children and loved up couples wandering the London streets. I’ve gritted my teeth as people jokingly ask me why I don’t seem Christmassy enough. I’ve carefully avoided discussing anything to do with loving this holiday, the wonderful family traditions everyone’s planning on re-enacting yet again – and if it gets tricky to keep out of it, I simply lie.

Sometimes I honestly cannot be bothered to ruin someone’s happiness by explaining that this holiday fills me with dread more than excitement, because I know that there’s a huge hole in the holiday where my mum and her ridiculously overexcessive celebrations of Christmas should be.

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Six months ago, one of my best friend’s mums passed away. She was, in turn, one of my mum’s best friends too. Talking to my bereaved friend on Christmas Eve, knowing that she doesn’t really know how, or want to, open up about her feelings to anyone, made me reassess how I feel about it all.

I don’t have a problem with talking about my mum’s death – I’m even writing about it here, with no qualms at all – but when I’m brazenly discussing it, telling the same story time and time again that I know automatically by now, I seem to bypass the pain of it. The memory of that nightmarish fortnight. And how I feel, still, four years on.

But yesterday afternoon, feeling heavy lidded, stone boned, lethargic and glum and apathetic, I lay down on my bed and suddenly realised what was happening.

In my effort to avoid the dreaded Christmas feeling, I’d somehow got myself right back into the energy I’d had to endure when she died. An all-encompassing feeling of futility, heartbreak, and the sense that nothing would ever feel normal or even bearable, ever again.

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December is always a hard time for me, but it’s been a different kind of hard this year. I’ve known for a while that I want to be travelling long term, and I think this could well be the last Christmas I spend at home, with my dad, in our little family of two (plus cat).

It’s a hard thing to explain to my dad; that I’m actively planning to not be home next year. But with that difficulty comes a sense of freedom and growth, the chance to take another step forward into the life I have to accustom myself to, without her in it.

The grieving process is a bitch. Just when you think it’s started to dissipate, it comes back with a vengeance, bites you in the arse and ruins your Christmas.

But I think I needed a day like that this year. I needed to remember why I made a promise to myself to do what makes me happy. Life’s too short to waste your time on things you think are suitable, just because the status quo dictates it.

Which is why I’m writing this at 3am, living up to the example my mum set for me of being a nightowl. And despite wishing she was sleeping in the room next door, I know that I’ll still be learning from the examples she set for me for the rest of my life.

Merry Christmas, mum.

Me and mum in Cyprus 2008

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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58 Responses to Why It Doesn’t Really Feel Like Christmas to Me

  1. Liz December 27, 2012 at 2:03 pm #

    Holy shit Flora, what an amazing, heartbreaking post. You just made me tear up in my cubicle.

    I can understand why you don’t feel very christmasy, I wouldn’t either. I can’t even begin to imagine going through what you have. Thank you for sharing this on your blog.

    • Flora January 8, 2013 at 2:11 pm #

      Thanks Liz, although I’m sorry for making you cry!

  2. Marco Fiori December 27, 2012 at 4:40 pm #

    It takes a lot of courage to speak about something so tragic so publicly. If anything, your decision to write about such a sad event reminds people what’s important in life and how many people suffer at a time of year that should be about celebration.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Flora January 8, 2013 at 2:19 pm #

      I know it’s a somewhat depressing aspect of the festive season to address but yes, I think it’s important to remember how difficult this time of year is for a lot of people. Thanks for commenting, Marco :)

  3. Ryan December 27, 2012 at 7:21 pm #

    Flora, what a lovely post, and my heart was wrenched reading this. I too have the same feelings pass through me each year, and it has been a struggle to enjoy Christmas with other peoples families or avoid the conversations about why I am not so cheerful.

    I remember every Christmas decorating the tree, that feeling of excitement in your tummy as a kid in anticipation of Christmas day to come. I would always sleep beside the tree until Christmas eve because of the colorful warm hue of the lights. The year my mum passed, I slept beside that tree and was startled awake by the sound of her Church heels walking through the living room on the hard wood floor, that continued down the hall even after I woke.

    December also holds my father’s birthday, which adds even more weight to the gloom of this month.

    But after visiting their graves this year after traveling for 8 Months in New Zealand, it was different. Sure, the family gatherings I attended still seems awkward because I felt I didn’t belong, or that hole was still empty and more apparent then ever. But remembering them, accepting our mortality, using their memory as fuel to keep me strong, and letting myself escape the gloom helped me a lot this season.

    Grieving is quite a bitch, and sometimes you want to sulk in the sadness. But it seems you have the right mindset moving forward. I think the trip will fill you with freedom, and using your mum as inspiration will make the holidays lighter and your spirit stronger. I’m sure your pop is proud even if he cant understand leaving, and I’m sure your mum will be smiling at all your adventures to come just like that photo.

    This literally made a knot in my throat. It was a lovely post Flora, thank you so much for sharing. it.

    • Flora January 8, 2013 at 4:49 pm #

      Ryan, this was such a sad comment to read, but it really helps to remember that those of us in this situation are in effect all part of a community. I often find that I start talking about losing my mum, only to find that someone in the conversation has lost a parent too. And you’re totally right; realising and relishing the freedom to be found at the same time as mourning can be a great help.

      Thanks also for sharing your story, I know it’s not easy. I hope your Christmas was ok :)

  4. Lissie December 27, 2012 at 8:23 pm #

    My mother died in September but knew Christmas would be dreadful. I arranged to be out of town tramping on Christmas Day the first year, the second I was on a plane to India, it wasn’t until the 3rd year I could handle being in the country again. I’ve never had a set pattern for Xmas day ever since. After about a decade I could think about the old days with happiness, but it takes a long time, and trite “Merry Christmases” certainly don’t help. I really do suggest getting a long way away from the “usual” Christmas

    • Flora January 8, 2013 at 2:25 pm #

      I’m sorry for your loss, Lissie, and thank you for sharing your methods of coping with the holiday. I think avoiding the ‘typical’ Christmas celebrations is definitely a good idea – four years down the line and I still would prefer to just not mark Christmas day at all really!

  5. Emily Buchanan December 27, 2012 at 9:04 pm #

    Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. What an amazingly strong and inspirational person you are Flora.

    • Flora January 8, 2013 at 2:28 pm #

      Thanks Em, that means a lot :)

  6. Caroline Eubanks December 28, 2012 at 12:07 am #

    Great post, Flora. Very honest.

    • Flora August 4, 2013 at 3:11 am #

      Thanks Caroline. I feel like being honest about this kind of thing is pretty important :)

  7. Victoria December 28, 2012 at 3:46 pm #

    Much love to you Flora. As you know, my Mum died on Christmas Day three years ago so I can empathise with how you feel. This year was the first time I spent it away from home. It made the day something different altogether, and I really appreciated not having the long run-up that happens in England. I don’t think I’ll stay away every year though. I also wrote a post on it. Thank you for yours. It’s really beautiful and I know not easy to share x

    • Flora January 8, 2013 at 4:42 pm #

      So much love to you as well my darling, I know this time of year will probably always be hard for us both but hopefully we’ll both learn to deal with it better as time goes on :) I read your post too and empathised with every word – it’s hard to be away from family and yet equally hard to choose to be with them when someone so integral isn’t there. Hope you’re doing ok xx

  8. Kay Rodriguez December 30, 2012 at 2:23 pm #

    Wow. You are so strong, Flora. For writing this, yes, but also for enduring it during a time when others are celebrating. I can only imagine how incredibly difficult that is, and I admire you so much for sharing your story so openly.

    I’ll always remember your story. I am sure your mother is so proud of how far you’ve come, and how you’re following your passions for travel and writing and connecting with others. You are SUCH an inspiration, and my heart goes out to you this holiday season as the healing process continues. May you find moments of cheer and happiness even through the pain. :)

    • Flora January 8, 2013 at 5:05 pm #

      Thank you so much for your kind words Kay!

  9. heathersharmony December 31, 2012 at 2:14 am #

    Beautiful post! I can’t imagine the depth and scope of these emotions but I know very well what a beautiful soul you have. Even in our brief time together your light and love touched me and will always remain a positive and passionate energy no matter how far apart we may be, you are always with me. Love you darling!

    • Flora January 8, 2013 at 5:08 pm #

      Thanks sweetie! Huge love to you too :)

  10. Special Kay January 6, 2013 at 2:57 pm #

    Flora, that was both sad and beautiful.
    I’m sat at work with teary eyes after that wee tug at my heart strings.
    Massive respect!

    *have a cheek*

    • Flora January 8, 2013 at 5:07 pm #

      Aww darling! Apologies for tugging at your wee heart strings :) But thanks very much for the offer of a cheek, I’ll gladly take you up on it!

  11. Akshay February 18, 2013 at 5:12 pm #

    Wow Flora, you’ve conveyed your feelings so beautifully and touchingly that I had a lump in my throat.

    Though I can’t begin to imagine your loss, all I can do is to wish you all the courage in the world.

    I would surely value my parents presence and love around me more than I do, and quit taking all of it for granted. Thank you dear xx

    • Flora February 22, 2013 at 3:31 pm #

      Thanks Akshay :)

  12. Ceri February 19, 2013 at 12:18 am #

    This is heartbreaking and so beautifully written, Flora. So sad and heartfelt. I really did have tears in my eyes when I read this.

    • Flora August 4, 2013 at 3:12 am #

      Thanks for the kind words, Ceri :)

  13. Melissa August 2, 2013 at 1:14 am #

    I wonder if there is some link between people who’ve suffered loss and those who travel the world? From what I can tell there are at least four of us BlogHouse alum who’ve lost a parent in the last four years. In my own case I think I definitely have newfound a “do it now because no one knows how long we have”/seize the day mentality. Travel has also been a good temporary escape sometimes.

    My mom passed away at the end of November 2010. I haven’t put up a Christmas tree since. That first year, still alternating between numbness and overwhelming grief, I wanted to punch every smiling Santa or snowman decoration I saw. In 2011 I tried to talk my Dad into going away to Ireland for Christmas since I was desperate to avoid having to create new traditions or face the old ones without her. We ended up staying in town but the holiday has been a much more low-key affair ever since and I just can’t muster that holiday feeling. I still have my tree boxed up in the spare room closet and maybe someday I’ll allow myself to find the holiday spirit again but I won’t beat myself if I don’t.

    Since then, every time I’ve traveled somewhere new, a butterfly has found me. There’s folklore that connects butterflies with the souls of those we’ve lost so I choose to think my mom is watching out for me when I’m out in the world on my own. Might sound silly but it’s a comfort.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    • Flora August 4, 2013 at 3:16 am #

      I remember thinking how strange it was that someone else in the BlogHouse had been through the same situation – and now clearly there are more of us. I wouldn’t be surprised if what you say is true, Melissa, as the sudden urgency to accomplish everything I want to do certainly stems directly from my sense of loss.

      The fact that butterflies find you wherever you go is beautiful, and I’m sure it’s related to your mum. We learn to find comfort in the small things because we know it’s what they’d want us to do, I think. Thank you for sharing your story, too :)

  14. Megan September 15, 2013 at 1:12 am #

    Flora,
    The day after Christmas 2007, my mother passed away from pancreatic cancer. She was the sole light in our three person family who loved Christmas for what is is. Since she’s been gone, neither my dad, nor I, in each of our seperate homes, do anything for Christmas. It had always been a tainted holiday for me, because to me Christmas is a time for family and togetherness and love. That didn’t exist in my family growing up, so once my mother passed on, Christmas no longer exists to me. I know it’s there, but to me it’s just a regular day. It’s sad because I know it’s something special, but I would be remiss if I said something in my heart for it wasn’t dead. I’m sorry you lost your mom and I understand completely how it affects your life, soul and mind. I hope some day Christmas can come back to you and be what it’s supposed to be. Good luck and take care.

    • Flora September 21, 2013 at 11:37 pm #

      Megan, thanks so much for sharing your story. I know how hard it can be – the absolutely awful timing of it happening at Christmas, the horrible realisation that a three person family is suddenly down to two. While I’m glad I was able to have twenty years of joyful Christmases, I’m acutely aware how much harder it makes the holiday nowadays. It’s also a large part of why I spent the first Christmas away from my dad – and I’ll do the same again this year.

      I really hope you and I both manage to see the festive season as something to be enjoyed at some point in the future — even if you’ve never found it special, I’m sure there’ll be a time when you do :) I’m so sorry for your loss, though. Good luck to you too :)

  15. Bo November 22, 2013 at 2:16 pm #

    I think I can somewhat relate to your feelings.

    A few years ago I lost my brother in a car accident, he’d been married a year and was just settling into life. As my older brother I looked up to him, and whilst it didn’t happen at christmas, no christmas since then has felt the same.

    We always used to go to my grandparents house, and they’d do a big family meal with all the trimmings. However loosing their first grandson hit them very hard, and we stopped having a big family christmas completely.

    I don’t remember a thing about that first Christmas without him. I think I must have been on autopilot for the next year or so as I don’t remember much from that period in my life anymore.

    A few short years later my grandparents were at our house for Christmas, and my grandfather looked ill. A few weeks later he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and didn’t live to see the following Christmas.

    Christmas has since turned into a bitter chore for most of our family. Dreading deciding who’s going to who’s house for Christmas dinner, arguing between adult siblings, and subtle backstabbery between relatives that live far away and refuse to get involved at christmas (to the point where they left my elderly grand parents on their own one year).

    Part of me would love to be able to enjoy it, but every time I think about it, it fills me with this feeling that no matter what, it’ll never be the same again.

    One thing I’d love to do, is taking the entire family away. I don’t know where, maybe some sort of big country house where the entire family is under one roof for the whole of the holiday season. Sadly I still don’t think that’d bring back those precious memories, and without a lottery win, it’s a pipe dream.

    I can’t even begin to imagine how hard it must have been to loose someone so close to the holidays. I hope you can find the strength to instead of mourn, celebrate the life of your mother at Christmas.

    I cant speak for anyone else, but I know if I was to pass away at Christmas, I’d hate to think my family were mourning me, when they could be celebrating the love they have between each other.

    I hope you are able to have a somewhat enjoyable Christmas this year.

    Bo x

    • Flora December 19, 2013 at 4:13 pm #

      I’m so sorry to hear of your losses Bo, but thanks for sharing them here. I can completely empathise with Christmas becoming a chore: the problem seems to be that so many people, and families, feel it’s necessary to continue with Christmas celebrations the way they’ve always been, and (for me, at least) this is exactly where the loss of the person you loved is so hugely apparent.

      This year I’ll be spending the 25th on Lake Titicaca, in a very calm way: no tree, no presents, probably a typical Bolivian meal somewhere, a Skype call with my dad, and not much else. Just the way I’m comfortable with. But I do have the hope that I’ll get that same Christmassy feeling at some point in my life again – just definitely not now.

      I hope you and your family also manage to find some comfort amongst each other this Christmas. And your last comment really rung true for me – celebrating love instead of death is one of the best ways to commemorate those we’ve lost. Thanks again, Bo xx

  16. Carmen December 23, 2013 at 1:45 pm #

    This is heartbreaking.

    Made me tear up!

    Thinking of you and sending love your way. xx

    • Flora January 1, 2014 at 4:07 pm #

      Thank you Carmen :)

  17. Spencer December 24, 2013 at 12:55 am #

    Wow, absolutely heartfelt over here! I wish you the best in the new year!

    • Flora January 1, 2014 at 4:09 pm #

      Thanks Spencer. You too!

  18. Jacqueline February 7, 2014 at 3:46 pm #

    I read this and couldn’t stop myself from saying out loud: exactly.

    My father very suddenly and unexpectedly passed away on December 10, 2012 and the past two holiday seasons have felt like a black hole. I felt so out of place due to my grief and lack of merriment or excitement at all about Thanksgiving or Christmas or New Years.

    What helped me a little this past holiday season was starting each dinner with my husband by sharing funny and touching memories of my father to help remember him even more clearly while marking the time of his passing.

    I think the hardest thing to accept is that things will never be what they were before.

    • Flora February 22, 2014 at 4:10 pm #

      That’s a really lovely way of remembering your dad :) I find it a lot easier now to remember the good times and positive memories of my mum – it’s just the few days around the Christmas period that I find it very hard not to get upset. The irony that Christmas is supposed to be such a merry holiday definitely makes things harder, too.

  19. Andra December 17, 2014 at 10:34 am #

    A great big hug, Flora!

    We will see each other soon, I hope.

    • Flora January 6, 2015 at 3:13 pm #

      It was so lovely to see you Andra 😀

  20. Dalene December 17, 2014 at 4:37 pm #

    I completely empathize with this post Flora, and your sentiments regarding Christmas. We share a similar story with a different timeline, and with my sister instead of my Mom. On the Christmas following her death, our whole family came together and tried to squash our grief with holiday cheer and fatty snacks. It was a disaster. We were all emotional wrecks, but tried our best to force a “perfect” holiday. I haven’t been able to get back to the idea of celebrating Christmas since.

    But I am completely okay with that. I’m happy now to be forging new traditions instead with Pete and I. It can never go back to the magic I remember as a child or even young adult, and this is my acceptance and adaptation. Such is life, I suppose, the ugly side of it. It’s all about what we make of it after the tragedy.

    • Flora January 6, 2015 at 3:23 pm #

      This year was the first Christmas I actually enjoyed, because it was with a friend’s family and so wholly different to the ones from my childhood or any of the ones with my mum. I love the idea of actively taking control of changing old traditions, so hopefully this new one will last :)

  21. vellissima December 20, 2015 at 10:24 am #

    Christmas is so difficult for some people. It sounds especially so for you. This is a deeply honest post. Good luck with your travels. I think you have a splendid plan. Your mother would be proud.

    • Flora December 29, 2015 at 11:59 am #

      Thank you so much :)

  22. Bekki December 20, 2015 at 10:59 am #

    Thank you.
    I’m currently trying to put into words how I feel about the loss of two of my grandparents this year, the first true loss I’ve ever had. And more importantly my fear of it leaving their partners lonely this Christmas.
    Its such an honour to read your beautiful words and hopefully next year can help to install a new magic into Christmas for you, I’m heartbroken you have to feel any loss at all especially that of your mum, but as an avid reader I’m wrapping my metaphorical arms round you and saying thank you, for being strong and inspiring me to be strong too
    Merry Christmas 🎄 xxx

    • Flora December 29, 2015 at 12:03 pm #

      Bekki, I’m so sorry that you’ve lost two loved ones this year. I hope the Christmas period went as well as it could’ve done for you – and there’s a large metaphorical hug coming your way from London, too :)

  23. Gary Cartzdafner December 20, 2015 at 11:55 am #

    family is family forever

    • Flora December 29, 2015 at 11:59 am #

      Very true, Gary :)

  24. nostravel December 20, 2015 at 2:34 pm #

    This is a brave and beautiful post. Loosing a loved one around the holiday season (any holiday) is one of the hardest things a person can endure. Sometimes you have to worship your pain in order to overcome it.

    • Flora December 29, 2015 at 12:04 pm #

      That’s a really interesting observation. I think there’s certainly a level within the mourning process of accepting and embracing the pain in order to move through it..

  25. Martina December 22, 2015 at 6:13 am #

    Flora, I feel so much for you. This is gonna be my fourth year out of my country for Christmas. Just being without my family during this magical (for me) time, is so hard for me and I can’t even imagine how it would be if there is no parent waiting for me in the heart of Czech Republic. Sending you lots of love and magical whiteness from Canada. You are a beautiful human being. Martina

    • Flora December 29, 2015 at 12:05 pm #

      Ohh, thank you so much Martina for such a beautiful comment! <3 I hope your Canadian Christmas was lovely!

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