Christmas Eve

It’s been an oddly busy few days in San Francisco, connecting with our families and getting things in order for the end of the year. We also spent a day baking holiday treats so we could bike around the city distributing care packages to our elderly and immunocompromised friends (of which there are, unfortunately, many). Holidays can be a hard time for me, so I make sure to find ways to keep active and connected, and it’s gratifying to feel like I can bring a little joy to people (and we’re pretty amazing bakers!).

It’s a little late in the day for me to be writing, and I have a few more gifts to wrap, but I wanted to put something up. So, I have three things for your today.

First, this, video, which I’ve watched a dozen times, because it makes me laugh so much:

Second, I’m reposting something I wrote last holiday season over on my other blog, Work Still in Progress. As I said, holidays can be hard for me, in large part because it’s when I feel the loss of my dad most acutely. For more on that, read below.

Third, I’m sending my love out into the world tonight.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

The holidays are upon us, a season of unity, of bringing together friends and family, a time when it almost seems as if our shared humanity might overcome those things that conspire to divide us. 

I try to approach this “most wonderful time of the year” (to paraphrase Andy Williams) with a certain openness. And sometimes I’m able to enjoy the celebrations and the music and the gift giving and the time spent together.

But let’s face it – the holidays can be a challenge. Even more so when we’ve lost a loved one. And yet more when we’ve lost someone to suicide.

I’ve written about my father’s suicide on this blog (link here); his death is woven into the fabric of my life, and it’s a reality that I confront on a daily basis with as much equanimity as I can muster. On my best days I’m able to feel integrated with both the complicated emotions that accompanied his life and my experience of his death, able to move through memories and feelings with a certain amount of grace. 

But this time of year always feels different. The holidays bring up memories so vivid and powerful that I feel Dad’s absence much more acutely, because he loved Christmas. LOVED Christmas. Spent months ramping up for it. 

I remember one year when he bought a tree so tall it poked a hole in our living room ceiling (our living room ceiling was 15 feet high). And his obsession with his ever-growing collection of holiday CDs, on constant rotation from the day after Thanksgiving. And how on Christmas Eve day if the the piles of presents were deemed lacking, he’d disappear for hours and return with armfuls of new gifts to tuck under the tree. And when after hours of unwrapping on Christmas morning, he’d set to cooking a multi-course gourmet feast that was weeks in the planning. 

The childlike thrill with which he approached this holiday was infections, a delight. Christmas was Dad’s thing. In our family Dad was Christmas. 

Our first Christmas without him was in 2001, which had the added trauma of being soon after 9/11 (in which I’d lost a friend). Celebrating at home in Hawaii, as we’d always done, was not an option. My husband Paul and I, not married a year when my dad took his life, invited my brother and Mom to Philadelphia, where we lived at the time.

Paul was playing a Christmas Eve gig at a church near our apartment, and Mom and my brother went along; I did not. Instead I went across the street to O’Neill’s Pub to spend the evening with Jameson and Guinness. They say holidays are all about traditions; for many years after Dad’s death, getting plastered on Christmas Eve was my new tradition.

Christmas morning began with the hustle and bustle of gift-giving and driving out to the suburbs to visit with Paul’s family. The afternoon saw us return back to the city where we took our dogs for a chilly walk to the park, delighting as they romped across the field of fresh snow. And as evening rolled around we found ourselves at a beautiful Christmas dinner buffet at a swanky Center City hotel restaurant, all soft music and flickering candles and gleaming silverware and…

It felt so wrong. I’d been trying all day to convince myself that I could move forward, create new memories, create my own magic, fill the enormous void that none of us could work up the courage to acknowledge. I was grieving, I was angry, I was still In disbelief over my loss and how life had inexorably changed. The carefully constructed scaffolding of activity and forced cheer wasn’t enough to hold me up. Instead I felt as though I’d collapse into myself, like my heart was being ripped out of me. Again.

I’d be lying if I said that every Christmas since has been better, although taken as an aggregate it’s true that they’ve improved. When you’ve spent a quarter century living one kind of normal, you can’t expect a new normal to immediately be established. Change is inevitable, yes, but accepting change and moving with it instead of against it takes patience. And courage.

Nearly 20 years after my father’s death, the holidays are still an emotional minefield for me, and while I still struggle to negotiate my way through them, I can rely on a few things to help.

One is to let go, I mean really let go, of any expectations of how you’ll feel. Maybe the holidays unearth a particular sadness that’s buried at other times of year. That’s OK. You don’t have put on a cheerful face, or think that there’s something wrong with you. You have every right to miss your lost loved one with fresh pain, to grieve, to feel sad or angry (despite the well-meaning exhortations that may come your way). As a wise friend once told me, don’t feel upset because you’re upset. Being upset is hard enough.

And then sometimes it might feel organic to really participate in the joy of the season, to be caught up in a moment of celebration. That’s wonderful; don’t feel guilty about it. You are not disparaging the memory of a loved one if you’re able to enjoy the holidays without them. In fact you’re honoring them by finding your footing in your new life. 

Second, it can be tremendously helpful to create new associations around the holidays. While you can’t expect to create new traditions overnight, it’s good to keep exploring the things that might bring you some joy. I’ve long given up my solitary alcohol-fueled Christmas Eves, but Paul and I have, for the past many years, taken to finding a holiday-themed activity that lies somewhere on the touristy/cheesy/campy spectrum. This year it was a Christmas-lights-of-San Francisco tour on a bus kitted out to look like a cable car. In our free Santa hats, holding oversized takeout cups of hot chocolate and with holiday tunes blaring, it was both ridiculous and perfect. Looking for an activity  that will top the previous year’s has given me something to look forward to, a holiday tradition that’s all my own.

And finally, I can’t emphasize enough the important of self care. When there’s so much holiday hustle and bustle and you’re experiencing a maelstrom of conflicting emotions, it’s vital to carve out some time for yourself and for those moments, however brief, to focus on your own needs. I know this is a tall order for anyone who has others to look after (and that’s most of us), but it’s impossible to be present for anyone else if you can’t be present for yourself. 

I’m not saying you need a spa day or a meditation retreat, simply to create some time in which you’re nurturing yourself and just yourself. A restorative yoga class. A afternoon with a book you’ve been meaning to read. A massage. Cooking your favorite dish (if you find cooking relaxing).  A trail run you rarely make time for. A dram of an 18-year-old single cask at that awesome Scotch bar. FaceTiming and reconnecting with a friend far away. Experimenting with a 15-step Korean skincare kit. Skeet shooting (I have a friend who finds this the most relaxing activity ever). A venti sugar-bomb holiday coffee drink concoction, just because it sounds good at the moment, and throw in some gingerbread loaf for good measure. A cuddle with the dog. A nap. Whatever makes you feel content and centered and brings calmness to both body and mind. When you feel good and grounded you can rejoin the hubbub of holiday activity.

When we lose someone to suicide we’re left with unanswered questions, unresolved feelings, unfinished conversations, and when the rest of the world seems to be celebrating togetherness the absence of someone can become even more heartbreaking. I’ve accepted that holidays are complicated, and they most likely remain that way for the rest of my life. My task is to make peace with that simple fact, find the things that can bring joy, and make sure that I treat myself with gentleness and care. I know I can survive, I know I will thrive. And I know that you can, too.

4 thoughts on “Christmas Eve

  1. Wayne Zelenak says:

    Sarah, Since your Coronavirus Diary was started, you’ve shared the stories of your life with its ups and downs, trials and setbacks, and fears as we all have. But during difficult times, I gravitate to music, old and classic movies. While watching them I try to imagine living in that time period without air conditioning, supermarkets, refrigeration, and electronic media.

    Another interesting pastime is acting your shoe size with a partner who can share your passion ending in uncontrollable laughter. Lastly is taking my dogs for a walk and talking to them and making eye contact. Together we can share the love for each other without actually conversing. I know you do that with Pinkerton.

    Reading your stories, watching you perform, and learning about music is my passion. Following you on several mediums, I can learn so much. My friends and family don’t share my passion for the artists and their stories but their stories enhance the understanding of their music, where you can feel their emotion. I’m sure you can understand. Most listeners only know the melody and do not share the stories behind the music.

    Michael Feinstein is one of those artists who spends his time away from performing to seeking unpublished music from artists who have passed. is an American singer, pianist, and music revivalist. He is an interpreter of and an anthropologist and archivist for the repertoire known as the Great American Songbook. In 1988 he won a Drama Desk Special Award for celebrating American musical theatre songs. Feinstein is also a multi-platinum-selling, five-time Grammy-nominated recording artist. He currently serves as Artistic Director for The Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, Indiana.

    As a young man, he was friends with Rosemary Clooney who was Ira Gershwin’s neighbor. Rosemary introduced him to Ira was impressed with this young man who knew so much about his musical collaboration with his brother George. The Gershwin brothers were able to capture the mood and culture of different eras. “Porgy and Bess” is one of their best musicals.

    Lastly, I love reading your diary and for me, it’s like a great novel that I gravitate to for inspiration. With every concert you conducted, I can fully appreciate the collaboration with the enormous staff required to produce and coordinate a show. The pick-up orchestra in LA with the Coco Production was amazing and resonated deeply with me.

    Happy Holidays, and enjoy what life has to offer and act your shoe size with Paul and Pinkerton.



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