Last holiday season, I had zero cheer to give.
Historically, I’m practically an elf.
My eyes well the instant I see people doing selfless, giving things, so I’m a stream of tears come Thanksgiving. I gasp for joy when I see Hershey Kisses on television ringing like hand bells. My dog has a reindeer sweatshirt and a Santa sweater. I love celebrations and giving. I love to love.
But December 2016, I found myself moving through the motions.
I watched the movies. I looped the playlist. I trimmed the tree.
But the inside glow? The intention? The obnoxious elf-like joy?
It was almost Christmas, and I hadn’t bought a single Christmas gift or any physical form of holiday cheer.
I couldn’t. It was a self-imposed rule, part of a yearlong project studying habit removal. I was intentionally neither giving nor receiving gifts to investigate how taking out this ritualistic, consumerist show of love would affect my holidays.
I had expected to compensate with actions: I had assumed I’d feel inspired to bake even more cookies, hand write long letters, and do friends favors. I would somehow show my love and cheer. But by late December, I hadn’t made a single cookie and felt no drive to start. I’d sent five cards. For the first time in thirteen years, I didn’t go downtown to happy-cry in front of the Rockefeller tree.
Instead, I walked around in a haze. I sad-cried while listening to Dolly Parton croon Hard Candy Christmas. I cried at home. And on the subway. And as I anxiety-attacked myself to sleep at night. I did my work, took care of myself and my dog, and showed up in public. But something was off.
What was wrong with me?
Was the ennui a lack of the dopamine hit we get every time we click “buy now” or walk into a store? Did I miss the ease of empty giving? The absence of getting stuff? Was I more superficial than I’d believed?
Where was the magical Hallmark-Lifetime-Disney-Pixar Christmas transformation promised by all those damned cheesy movies I’d watched over and over and over again?
These were the harsh circumstances I’d set myself up to explore. I just didn’t anticipate hurting so much.
One frigid evening, I bundled in flannel and fleece, grabbed my dog, and hit the city streets to think it out.
In my five months of studying habit removal I’d uncovered some harsh truths. In not being able to reach for the immediate relief of social media, shopping, and sugar — the “challenges” prior to removing holiday commercialism — I’d unveiled the reality that I was unhappily single, struggling in my career, and the chronic illness I’d been coasting much of my life was getting worse. I’d thought this whole project would make me happier. But so far, it had only made very clear how much work I truly had to do.
In the absence of those habits, I learned I had to make choices. I had to confidently separate true likes from dislikes in all things emotional and physical. I had to accept responsibility for my past shortcomings, and then take more responsibility for my current and future decisions.
As I walked, I thought back on the traditions I had marked in that last month: hosting my writer’s group dinner party, viewing every flick from It’s a Wonderful Life to Rare Exports, seeing the Nutcracker at the New York City Ballet.
And I realized the thing about the holidays:
When we suffer during festive times, well-meaning loved ones often tell us to do; we should do over whatever has brought us holiday joy in the past. We should drive around and look at houses decked in lights, bake cookies with family members, listen to our favorite songs — whatever it is to “get into the holiday spirit”.
But those genuine moments of joy rush us with dopamine, serotonin, and adrenaline. Love, warmth, holiday glow, whatever — they physically imprint. Those imprints make lasting memories. If we can’t replicate those feelings — the actual physical sensations — we recognize the absence like an ache.
And so I looked up at New York City’s starless sky and ached.
And I let myself admit:
At thirty-five, I was so broke I’d borrowed money from my sister for rent.
I was working harder yet falling further behind.
I was getting sicker and couldn’t stop the decline.
My body hurt. And hurt. And hurt.
That scared me. So much.
Illness had me more isolated than ever.
A guy I’d been seeing ended things a few weeks prior.
Another short relationship ended, again.
That hurt, too.
I watched a couple walking close together in front of me and said, out loud…
“I am so, so lonely”
In my months of removing habitual quick fixes, I’d learned jumping on Twitter, reaching for brownies, and clicking on “buy now” only masked the realities I had to face. This wasn’t about presents. It was about not having much to give anyone. And so I took in my holiday hurt and accepted:
Cocoa and carols won’t replace a lost loved one.
Or repair a suffering body.
Or fill an empty bank account.
Or bring a needed job.
Or heal a broken heart.
Breathing the cold air slowly, I chose to let that be okay. I made an active choice to not feel Christmas that year. Instead of forcing myself to fake things, I’d use the time to work my problems out. I’d accept the hurt, and ponder the action it would take to improve those things.
If I used time well, maybe next year things would be different.
I walked home welcoming gentleness, quiet, and patience. I forgave myself for not doing the more I thought needed for my loved ones to love me. I trusted love would be enough.
On Christmas Eve, I went to sleep sad. And that was okay. On Christmas morning, I woke alone, my mind quiet. And that was okay, too.
It took many months of self-exploration to get from loss and ache to presence and peace. It took facing new challenges and replacing habit with intention. It took daily, constant choice and action. It took losing so much more before wins came.
But this December, I am full of calm, easeful, genuine holiday cheer. The single-sick-broke trifecta shifted to such a point that I am overwhelmed by my fortune. My desires and joys are simpler than they were a year ago, yet I feel rich in my physical and emotional landscape. I feel lost in abundance. And in that, I have more of value to give to those I love.
Maybe I did get that Hallmark-Lifetime-Disney-Pixar ending after all.
Because in giving up gifting, I learned what it is to truly have. And to give.
This was written as an essay for Medium. Thanks for reading!