Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Reflections from an HSP

It has been a while, since I have written here.

There are various reasons for this-- some good, some not so good... moving, traveling, more recently Sarah having shoulder surgery. It seems that mo matter how we plan life, "something" always comes up.

Today's entry is mostly a self-indulgent meander and reflection, although it definitely has its "HSP angles," given that I am-- after all-- an HSP.

I journal in morning-- generally before anything else comes along to clutter my head. It's a variation of what Julia Cameron (of "The Artists Way" fame) calls "morning pages," although I generally write on the computer. For no particular reason, this morning I felt compelled to journal in Danish... which is my original native tongue. I rarely journal in Danish; although I am basically fluent, I find it cumbersome to type on a keyboard that lacks the uniquely Danish parts of the alphabet-- æ, ø and å.

My words of this morning never set out to be "for public consumption," but I ended up with a few insights and a post I decided to translate into English... a series of reflections on Christmas, what it "means" to us, and how the holiday seasons might have shaped our approach to life. If the following sounds a bit "odd," and "different," please remember that it was translated from a foreign language...

Today is the 23rd of December. In Denmark, we call that "Little Christmas Eve."

Me, my dad and my Aunt Ulla, Christmas 1964
When I looked out the window this morning (and contemplated a grey day), I got to thinking about how short the Christmas season was, when I was little. My dad and I would cut our own Christmas tree in the garden (we had lots of land) and bring it in ("so it can dry off") on the 21st or 22nd of December. In 1962, "we" made a Christmas tree foot out of scrap lumber. It was saved and used for every Christmas tree since then-- at least until my parents divorced. I still have it, somewhere in my stuff-- my dad carved the date, and our names (including my teddy bear) in it.

On Little Christmas Eve we'd bring out all the decorations and decorate the tree. Back then, we actually used "live" candles on the tree. Of course, the tree had to be "back out of the house" by New Year's, so most of the time, we'd be putting everything away on the 29th or the 30th of December... which is what made me think about how short Christmas was.

Of course, my school holidays rarely started till December 22nd, and I usually had to be back in school by January 3rd or 4th.

Here in the US, the Christmas season is almost insufferably long. In some ways, that might be part of the reason why the holiday season hasn't carried as much meaning for me, during the adult years of my life I have lived here. Then again, maybe it was keeping shop-- a retail "gifty" store I was part of for 13 years-- that ruined it for me. Working 80+ hours a week with the "general public" leaves little bandwidth for anything else... especially when you're an easily overwhelmed highly sensitive person. Then again, maybe Christmas lost part of its shine when I started hearing Christmas music and seeing Christmas commercials on TV before Halloween. Ultimately, though, the sense of "something lost" could just be part of the process of "becoming an adult."

I only recall one White Christmas. I think I was nine. There was a "close call" when I was five or six... snow on the 20th or 21st, but then it rained. I only remember this one White Christmas because I remember there being snow on the ground when we drove to church, on Christmas Eve. That's actually kind of odd, now that I reflect on it. My family was absolutely not religious... yet we always went to church on December 24th. I have a strong feeling we primarily went to hear Christmas carols... dad was not into any kind of singing or dancing, but I sense he didn't mind seeing and hearing them-- once a year-- as long as he wasn't expected to participate. Then again, maybe we went to church to give me more of a "balanced" experience of life; to let me see how "other people" did things for the holidays. Frankly, I have no idea...

Christmas, in Denmark...

Making Christmas cookies with Aunt Ulla, December 1965
What I remember most is the richness of scents and tastes that came with the season. Even as a child and pre-teen, it "wasn't about the presents, it was about the FOOD." I remember we'd pack up a bunch of baking stuff, and (around December 16th) we'd pile in the car and drive to my Aunt Ulla's house in Valby (more or less Copenhagen) to make marzipan goodies and bake "brown cookies" (essentially ginger snaps). I always looked forward to this, with great anticipation. What seemed so cool about it was that the adults became "more like children" for one brief evening... actually "getting into" things with their hands, and making things. I know we also did the annual baking expedition at my aunt's summerhouse in 1965, when the city house was being turned into apartments.

I remember that dad and I would wrap Christmas presents together. He's actually the one who taught me how to wrap presents. I remember he used the same shiny blue paper (and later on, green paper) year after year. We always knew which presents were "his." He never used gift tags-- instead he painted the "to" and "from" messages directly onto the packages, using white paint.

I remember the rich scent of duck (or goose) roasting, on Christmas Eve. I remember the giant dinner later that night, and how there was always lots of food for the next three days. I don't remember a whole lot about Christmas itself (the night of our major BIG celebration), but I do remember that my Aunt Grete would always come for lunch on December 26th... and my father would always make fun of her giant brown cookies, which were far more "tough" than "crispy." The only other thing I clearly remember of Christmas Eve (aside from the food) was that Aunt Ulla always came to spend it with us.

I cannot-- in good conscience-- say that I remember anything specific I was given as a present for Christmas. There are assorted photographs of me playing with assorted toys and building sets, but I don't remember them, nor receiving them. And, as I said, I really don't remember "presents" as being what I was looking forward to.

On Christmas Day, my mom typically prepared a large buffet-style dinner with roast pork and many home made "small dishes." I remember I would get to eat "pickings" from the left over duck, for lunch. But once Aunt Grete had come to lunch on "2nd Christmas Day," it felt like Christmas was "about over." The Christmas tree seemed... sad... and a couple of days later it-- and all signs of Christmas-- was gone and the decorations packed as quickly and suddenly as they had come.

My mom by the Christmas tree in Spain, circa 1976
Christmas lost most of its luster when we moved to Spain, in 1973. It was not "the same" to celebrate Christmas with sunshine, 65-degree weather and palm trees. Christmas trees were expensive because they had to be trucked in from 1000 miles away. My stepdad would moan and groan endlessly about the expense, but my mother insisted... and we'd end up with a real Christmas tree.

But it never felt the same.

Locally, they didn't really celebrate Christmas as I knew it. There were all manners of "Saint's Days" and what (I believe) is mostly called "Twelfth Night" in English-speaking parts of the world. Most of these took place in early January. Christmas, itself, was not that big a deal. There seemed to be no Christmas lights in people's gardens, and not that many decorations to be seen... and those that were there seemed... garish and loud. The shops carried "strange" merchandise; the delicious cookies, marzipan and chocolates of Denmark were replaced by brightly colored sugar candy which I didn't like... at all. And the food smells seemed very... "foreign."

The only thing that felt familiar... and filled me with fleeting sensations of being "home," in some way... was the aroma of duck roasting, drifting through the house, on Christmas Eve. But it was very fleeting, indeed. And whereas the tastes felt right, it hardly felt like a "celebration" because it was just my mother and I who were part of the celebrating.

We had become part of an "English" household (my stepdad was English)... and the richness of the roast duck would soon be pushed out of the way by turkey, plum pudding and other things unfamiliar.

In retrospect, I recognize that my HSP-ness was manifesting... because I just never felt comfortable around something "I didn't know."

Of course, there was never any chance of a White Christmas... this was southern Spain.

Snow on the distant mountains, behind our house in Spain
From time to time-- near Christmas, and during the winter, in general-- I would walk out into the street behind our house and look up towards the distant mountains to see if, perhaps, snow had fallen at 5000+ feet. Alas, it rarely had... it was decades later before I recognized how much longing I always had for the "high north" where I'd been born...

Christmas-- as I knew it-- disappeared entirely when I moved to Texas (for college) in 1981. At that time, "old" Christmas became almost entirely "a memory," rather than "a reality." I was now in America, and things were different here. Oddly enough, I started making "Danish Christmas Dinner" every year for my ex's family and friends... and it became a "tradition" they came to very much look forward to, as a prelude to the giant turkey meal on Christmas Day. Also strange was that I started making the Danish style pork roast with prunes and apples and red cabbage... not the roast duck I had grown up with.

So now I am sitting here, and it is 2011. I look back at a long row of Christmases that have felt more like "work" and "obligation" than something celebratory. This year, Christmas around here will be quiet... Sarah just had shoulder surgery, so we're going to take it all in a very low key way.

I have been wondering where my mild feelings of "bah, humbug!" along with a greater sense of underlying sadness comes from, when I think about Christmas. It occurs to me that Christmas is-- at least for many of us-- perhaps the thing we latch onto more than any other as a "symbol" of what it feels like to be "home." We remember it as a time when there was good food, generally good moods, and people who at least made a perfunctory effort to "get along." In a sense, it might offer us a small illusory sense of being a part of something "permanent," even though life is never permanent.

As I think these thoughts, I also recognize a deeper sense of feeling cast adrift: Aside for my first nine years (up to the time my parents divorced), Christmas has typically felt like I was "borrowing" other people's traditions and history... without ever having any of my own. Maybe that is how we all feel-- but maybe soft-spoken HSPs more than others-- like we are merely the "window dressing" or "supporting act" in other people's existences.

It takes a while, to come full circle... to understand our losses, and then to recover the parts of ourselves that were lost, disappeared, or maybe even stolen. All these years later, I sit here in western Washington. In many ways, this place reminds me of Denmark... only with a better view. Outside, it is winter; grey and cold, much like my childhood. And just like my childhood, it is possible to have a White Christmas here, albeit highly unlikely.

Snow in our back yard in Denmark
It's a strange thing, that. When I think about Christmas as a kid, I think about snow... and yet, I only experienced a single White Christmas. Funny, no?

Maybe that reflects precisely what "Christmas" is: a series of memories that somehow remind us of what "home" feels like... except distorted by the lens of passing time. And as the years pass by, we bring out these memories out once a year and "decorate" them with our own "emotional Christmas ornaments" to where we eventually "recall" something that never existed, in the first place.

As HSPs, it is true that we "process deeply." As part of this deep processing, we tend to go over the same things again, and again, and again. I have met many HSPs-- especially from abusive/unsupportive backgrounds-- who seem to possess a deep sadness. Although my background wasn't particularly horrid, I know this feeling in myself. The real problems arise when we get too comfortable with our wounds and losses-- real or perceived-- and get trapped in our sadness, and find ourselves unable to move on and celebrate the positive that exists right now, in this moment.

The feelings that come with our "well-decorated" holiday memories of our pasts are exactly that. Memories of the past. They are not current reality. Pause and consider whether they even are "reality," at all. Lamenting that "today" isn't "back then" serves little purpose... besides making ourselves feel bad, and being a wet blanket downer to everyone around us.

And that, after all, is not what Holiday celebrations are about.

Happy Holidays to everyone! May the season bring you precisely what you wished for... and if you don't like how it seems to be unfolding, remember that you have the power to change it! Put less energy into complaining about what's wrong, and more energy into creating a reality that's right.

Talk Back: How are your memories of the Holidays? Happy? Sad? Do you tend to get stuck in memories of the past? Have you ever stopped to evaluate whether your memories of the holidays-- good OR bad-- are "real?" Or have you "decorated" them to where they no longer reflect what actually happened? Leave a comment!


  1. Always enjoy your posts! Thanks, and Happy Holidays...

    (If you're interested, I couldn't resist "restoring" your vintage photos!: )

  2. copy & pasting got away from me! Try this link for the restored photos...


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