By Rhea St. Julien In the first five minutes of the 1965 classic A Charlie Brown Christmas, the main character pronounces himself "depressed", "let down" by Christmas, and lonely. He dislikes the tradition of card giving, because it reminds him that no one likes him when he doesn't receive any. He rails at the over-commercialization of Christmas, and despairs that no one seems to take it, and him, seriously.
Watching it with my toddler on Hulu, I realized that if it were made today, A Charlie Brown Christmas would be deemed too glum for mass consumption. Characters on TV today have bizarrely huge smiles even in the worst of situations---Diego's grin at having to find the lost maned wolf reassures kids that "Sure, the mom lost her pup, but don't worry! Everything is okay! Al rescate!" The expressions of the Peanuts gang look more like they have chili-induced indigestion, over things as small as decorations, unhelpful advice, and ill-thought-out letters to Santa.
I love that the Charlie Brown special depicts the big emotions of kids at this time of the year, because children are totally overwhelmed by all the bustle, no matter how tinseled it may be. They act up, get scared more easily, need to be held during nap times and have melt downs in the middle of Target. They are hopped up on sugar (when did Advent calendars start having chocolates for each day?!) stay up late for parties, and the stress of their parents is passed down to them. It's a never-ending cycle, as parents get more stressed by their kids' behavior, and disappointed when special holiday-themed outings turn disastrous. "I'm just trying to give you a good Christmas!" I saw a mom say thru gritted teeth, outside a store where other families were bopping around to carols, enjoying the discounts at the annual holiday party, happy it wasn't their kid that had filled their fists with cookies and ran out onto the street.
I felt her pain. Just last week I took our toddler to a showing of The Velveteen Rabbit, a dance performance for children based on the Margery Williams book. She had never been to anything like that, and though she overall enjoyed the experience, I did not. She sat on my lap and asked questions throughout the entire show, at times scared, at other times just trying to make sense of what she was viewing. All the kids in the audience were talking, laughing, and shouting, but mine seemed to be the very loudest.
The grandmother in front of us concurred with my estimation. She turned around every five seconds, sneering, sighing, and shushing us. I tried to explain to her that it was a children's performance and kids are allowed to make noise, but she proclaimed I had "ruined it for her" and I bowed out of the discussion before I got really angry. What that lady thought she was getting when she bought a ticket to the 11am matinee is beyond me, but her shaming of my daughter while I was working really hard to parent her through the performance was horrible. I left feeling defeated. I had tried to do something special with my daughter for the holiday season, and had only managed to totally overwhelm her, myself, and the people sitting near us.
This week, at a winter-themed Story/Song/Dance time I was leading at my friend's store, I took homemade paper snowflakes out of my bag and let them drift down onto the children while I sang "Let It Snow", the closest those California kids would get to a snowstorm. My daughter stood right in the middle and screamed, "Mama, I'm done! Mama, no singing!" I just sighed and asked my friend to take her for a walk so I could continue being all magical for the tots who were actually enjoying it.
Are we really so different from my easily-overwhelmed little one? I think not. Everyone I know seems to be already over the holiday season, and we have at least two weeks more of it. As adults, we dull our feelings with cocktails and present-buying, but they are still there. That's why tonight, instead of heading out onto the wreath-lined streets to hit up a friend's pop up art show, I'm going to stay in with a book and a journal. I'm going to write about how I miss my sister and my mother, who I am not seeing this year, and my father, whom I will never be able to spend another Christmas with on this earth again. I'm going to take some deep breaths, and make some Charlie Brown faces. I'm going to feel that good grief he keeps talking about, and create some space and patience for my daughter's feelings, as well.
We believe we can find more joy in the holidays by squashing the little voice that tells us bright spirits and good cheer are only possible when we’re perfect. The magic of this time of year comes from connecting with loved ones near and far, reminding ourselves of all we have to be thankful for, and . . . covering everything in twinkling white lights.
We’re embracing our present lives—foibles and all—so we can spend more time drinking egg nog and less time worrying we’re not good enough. Imperfect is the new black; wear it with pride.