Linda Neale's Blog

Recovering from post-traumatic Christmas stress

Linda Neale - Thursday, December 22, 2011

The holiday season has always been difficult for me.   I know I'm not alone in decrying the commercialism of what, for Christians, is supposed to be a religious remembrance of a humble birth in a manger; or for Jews, commemorates the re-dedication of  a holy place of worship.  But my experience was so directly connected to what many religious leaders call "religion-for-profit", that I wanted to share part of my story of recovery.


When I was a child, my father was literally in the Christmas business.  He owned a company called "Christmas Northwest",  which distributed Christmas "stuff" to stores throughout our region.  Whether it was summer or winter, upon entering his building in SE Portland, people were greeted by hundreds of sets of flashing Christmas lights, thousands of sparkly ornaments, and decorations of all kinds on every wall.  Christmas was about making money -- not music, or birth, or church, or joy.   My father was always "stressed out" about Christmas.  His only ritual was a Christmas office party  where lots of businessmen and women drank and ate heavily.   The whole experience of Christmas always made me feel anxious and disconnected.

When I entered adolescence, I felt that all the emphasis on profit from Christmas was just inherently wrong.   I searched to find something -- a tradition, a ritual -- anything I could hang on to that had a deeper meaning, that led me closer to birth and joy.  The idea of the Christmas tree always resonated with me, as did commemorating the return of the light, and the music of the season.  My mother, who was divorced early from my father, always put on a music production with her children (including me) dressed as angels.   As an adult, I helped create a holiday music party, where I brought out my violin, and all attendees played their own musical instruments and sang together.  But it's been a struggle for me to find a cultural tradition that could help heal the deep wounds of my paternal Christmas trauma.

Until now. 

This year, on a whim, I decided to investigate the Christmas traditions of my Polish ancestors, and I think I've hit the jackpot.  I had to use the internet, because all my Polish relatives are long gone.  In fact the only connection that remains are a few stories told by my mother about her Polish grandmother, Anastasia Voelpel. She emigrated to the US in 1888, and never learned to speak English.  Mother remembers sitting at her great-grandmother's feet as a small child, as Anastasia rocked in her rocking chair and made rag dolls for her "little red squirrel", as she called my mother in Polish.  What I wouldn't give to know more about Anastasia's life...

The Voelpels made Christmas cookies, but didn't pass on many other Polish traditions.  What I discovered on the internet is just delightful and seems to have struck a chord of remembrance in me, as if I really knew this all along, but had forgotten for a short century or so.  


For Poles, Christmas Eve is a time for families to gather and reconcile any differences, and to remember loved ones who have gone before them.  Christmas Eve, or Wigilia, literally means "vigil," or waiting for the birth of Baby Jesus and is considered more important than Christmas Day itself.

Here's an excerpt from the website:

"Early in the day, the women of the family start preparing the meal, which traditionally consists of twelve meatless dishes (honoring the twelve apostles) and includes many kinds of fish, beet or mushroom soup, various dishes made from cabbage, mushrooms, or potatoes, pierogi, followed by dried fruit compote and pastries for dessert.

While the meal is being cooked, the men and children decorate the Christmas tree and set the table. Hay is usually placed in the corners of the room and on the tablecloth, recalling Christ's humble birth in a stable. An extra place setting is added in memory of those who are not able to join the family for Wigilia. When the first star, gwiazdka, appears in the night sky, the meal can finally begin. A prayer is said first and then the family members share the oplatek.


Sharing of the oplatek (pronounced opwatek) is the most ancient and beloved of all Polish Christmas traditions. Oplatek is a thin wafer made of flour and water, similar in taste to the hosts that are used for communion during Mass. The Christmas wafer is shared before Wigilia, the Christmas Eve supper.

The father or eldest member of the family reaches for the wafer, breaks it in half and gives one half to the mother. Then, each of them breaks a small part from each other's piece. They wish one another a long life, good health, joy and happiness, not only for the holiday season, but also for the new year and for many years to come. This ceremony is repeated between the parents and their children as well as among the children; then, the wafer and good wishes are exchanged with all those present, including relatives and even strangers. Wishes for peace and prosperity are exchanged and even the pets and farm animals are given a piece of oplatek on Christmas Eve. Legend has it that if animals eat oplatek on Christmas Eve, they will be able to speak in human voices at midnight, but only those who are pure of spirit will be able to hear them.


The foods are to represent the four corners of the earth -- mushrooms from the forest, grain from the fields, fruit from the orchards, and fish from the lakes and sea."


After reading this and more, I felt like I'd just been given the greatest Christmas present ever -- discovering my own path to holiday healing. (To read more and see some Polish recipes, you can click here.)


So this Christmas in our family we're beginning a new/old tradition.  I ordered some oplatek sent from the east coast, and will share it with all my siblings, nieces and nephews, and friends.  My mother, who's 86 years old, will break the first piece of oplatek, and remember her great-grandmother. I'm eager to cook the fruit compote for the first time and the other foods from the four directions.  I've purchased twelve kinds of dried fruit for the twelve apostles (part of the Polish symbolism), although I do wonder which fruit is symbolic of Judas.  And we will leave a seat empty at the table for a weary stranger.   I have something real from my ancestors that I can pass on to coming generations -- a ritual that counteracts the commercialism of the season and helps to heal my heart.   So perhaps when my daughter is 86,  she will remember her great- great- great-grandmother Anastasia and break the oplatek for her family.   


Jana Shannon commented on 22-Dec-2011 09:10 AM
I also have a terribly difficult time at Christmas for the same reasons you state ... except I have no 'Christmas Trauma' to point to. My mother always said I have always had issues... not able to appreciate anything, even as a child. I hope this gives
you the peace you seek. I was nice reading that I'm not the only one ... :)
Anna Zach commented on 23-Dec-2011 02:29 PM
Thank you Linda.Being born in Czechoslovakia in 1931 when I came to Canada I never liked the Christmas here in North America.I never liked Santa. The bigest celebration was on Christmas Eve when Little Jesus came and brought the Christmas Tree,which the
kids never decorated as it was a surprise and gift from Baby Jesus. The day before one room or part of the dweling was locked not to diturb Baby Jesus whe he would be comming with the tree and gifts (Lost of stress for the parents) We were fasting the whole
day with the promiss ....not enough space here..Andula
Jon Biemer commented on 24-Dec-2011 11:01 AM
A week ago a friend asked me what my favorite holiday was. I had to pause. The sense of obligation around gift giving has always been a challenge for me. And these days I don't buy into the main-stream Christian theology. Still, I had to say Christmas
is my favorite holiday. It is the time of year when people go beyond their limitations of generosity and reach out to people they don't know. By the way, a former boss and his daughter are Salvation Army bell-ringers. There is another Christmas tradition worth
Whetstine Rebecca commented on 24-Dec-2011 02:11 PM
...I like that you do not come from some philosophical position of umbrage, but, instead, something tangible that can be dealt with. I've always enjoyed that about you: look at the potential for neurotic conflict or a deeper spiritual dis-ease that must
be dealt with within oneself... My family did not share about our history or where we came from. I grew up with a single mother and too many brothers, moving from place to place. We were taught to experience magic and mystery and darkish wonderment in simple
things. Our rituals were about ourselves as a family unit in our own internalized creativity more than anything external. If I were to learn our family history, I might possibly suddenly understand some of our rituals. But for now, I experience it as storytelling,
small acts and the experience of creative focus. I always experienced Xmas as an opportunity to show love, dedication, creativity and attendance to my family. Each year some creative theme would come to me, and then I set about making it happen. One year it
was a special mug for each person, filled with their most favorite candy. Another year each person got a different oil lamp and oil in their favorite color or scent for their own lamp. I recall trudging the rainy Eugene winter streets by bus and by the hour,
searching the little stores and independent shops for just the right item. It was not a brightly-lit, carnivorous stampede of people clashing for the same cellophaned objects ranged up in screaming pink girlie aisles and pumped-up black and blue boy aisles.
It was me listening to the pleasant creek of wooden floors, the scent of dust rising microscopically as I walked through now-gone hardware stores. It was me, during my christian seeker year, walking the aisles of bible bookstores seeking something that spoke
to me but only if it would speak equally to my family members on THEIR terms. My mother taught me this maxim when I was very little: "Give someone the gift that you would want for yourself". Which is to say, do not simply get "something" and do not buy what
YOU want. Look at it with this person in your most creative heart and think about the individual pleasure of the recipient. And if you cannot purchase much, then find something treasureable in your range. If it is only a small stone heart with ancient marbling
running through it, wrap it with creativity in tissues and home made bow, and give it with confidence of thought. This is what I experienced as the gift giver. Enjoying the process of finding expressive and individual items... My mother was a marvelous manifester.
I have no idea if my father contributed any funds in the background to help her to do for us. More than likely not. And yet she made things happen... I suppose I've communicated these same precepts to my son. I see him conduct his giving and doing in just
this same way. I worry about him sometimes because of it!! My extravagantly thoughtful boy who gives in his giving to the recipient and not to himself. As to traditions, to us the intimate togethernes of xmas eve was most important. On xmas eve we warmed the
house with a fire if we had a fireplace, or with the kindness of candles and darkened rooms so as to enjoy our xmas tree we'd have gone to the hills to cut. Mom and my little brother always cooked and baked together. And each xmas eve mom would give us a package
to open. It was always pajamas. And then we were allowed to choose one to open. We always chose the smallest package. We loved the saving of the largeness. And relished the moment of the small sweetness. We read, listened to music, messed around in harmony.
In a house that featured daily pathological, traumatic behaviors and actions, xmas eve was always, ALWAYS peaceful and true. ... At any rate. I am grateful to have this moment to look at the dark and the light, the intimate and the general. My son does not
like xmas. He is too affected by what it really, really has become, as social media and the tripwires of commerce are much more intrusive and faster than lightning. He has little surcease from it, as a man of this generation. My home where we have our odd
bundle of gifts, but no xmas tree anymore, just a fire, and time together, and cooking and talking - our xmas is stripped of some things for now. And will surely renew or shift when it is time for us to raise his babies together.
Barb Mickey commented on 27-Dec-2011 10:14 AM
The family and friends gathering has always been the best part for me. My first boss when I moved to partland in '89 was a wonderful polish man that loved ritual and celebration. I've shared that wafer tradition with him and many others. Thanks for the
JOnathan Snell commented on 30-Jan-2012 10:58 PM
One way for a person to open my heart and trigger that identification feeling in me, is to say, "I have trouble with Christmas." My favorite Christmas 2011 experience involved driving our old van to our traditional U-Cut place. I look in the rear view
mirror and watch and hear my 30-year old daughter say, "What am I doing? I'm 30 years old, married, and a lawyer, and I'm going with my parents to cut down a christmas tree!" This got a chuckle out of me, and a strong feeling of gratitude.

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