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By Helena Smrcek

One of my favourite childhood memories is the Advent calendar. Each morning in December I opened a window, and got a piece of chocolate. Sometimes Grandma took me to mass. When we came home, the house smelled of tangerines, frankincense, and fresh pine needles. Grandpa and I set up the Nativity Scene. Christmas was magical, filled with wondrous expectations.

As I grew older reality chipped away at the illusion. It began with a paper calendar, with numbered windows, but no chocolate. The Santa mystery was revealed. There were gifts my siblings and I snooped out, and never received. The fight my mom and dad had over my Grandma and Grandpa coming to dinner, and the silent treatment that preceded the Christmas Eve feast.

The most stressful holiday tradition was my mothers’ parents’ annual Christmas Day dinner. Dad hated to go. His opinion of the socialist government, embodied by my mother’s family, was no secret. Fights ensued. My stomach in knots I couldn’t wait to go home. Then mother would be silent for weeks.

Things got stranger yet. Our first Christmas in an Austrian refugee house Grandma’s catholic traditions came to life once more. There were shoe boxes delivered by missionaries, who also brought us the Good News. I grasped the irony of the past family gatherings of professing atheists, celebrating birth of Christ. My mother cried. She missed them. My father was mad. We have left everything behind, because of communists, like them.

But the festive season took on another meaning that year. I considered it my first real Christmas, and purposed to celebrate the holidays in a new light, and start new traditions.

Yet the family drama continued, bringing on more stomach knots. One year it was my sister’s drinking boyfriend, then my father’s gallbladder attack, the phone mother unplugged so we couldn’t wish them Merry Christmas, yet another one of my sister’s boyfriends, this one absent, causing her a meltdown, subsequently blamed on me and my family.

I found professional help. When my psychologist asked what I really wanted, I told her a normal family. She said I would never get that. Then we prayed, and she freed me, making it clear that I was only responsible for my behaviour.

Thinking of my children, and their memories, I searched for balance. We made a few changes. Not everyone was happy. But as I edited my Christmas expectations, I learnt to say no. Those who didn’t think my family deserved to be happy and enjoy the holidays, didn’t need to come. Harsh and selfish, perhaps. But as the years went on, we developed new traditions, centered around our faith, peace and love.

I cherish the Christmas season, still sending out cards. We host parties, cook our giant home-grown turkeys, make time to go to church, and sleep in on Christmas Day.

Be good to yourself, my mentor used to say, and at first I thought it was a bit strange. But now I understand. So, be good to yourself, and say no to invitations that don’t bring you joy. Buy an Advent calendar, and as you claim your daily chocolate, think of the sweetness of God in your life. Play your favourite Christmas music, and eat the cookies. Indulge in the wonder of the season, and cherish those you love. It’s one big birthday party after all. He chose to come to us, Emanuel, God with Us. Let us celebrate and rejoice, with no guilt, because life is too short for needless drama.

Have a truly Merry Christmas, may your holidays be blessed, filled with love, kindness and peace. – Helana Smrcek