We did a viral holiday countdown this year—viral as in gastroenteritis. Incapacitation time ranged from 12 to 42 hours, including electrolyte recovery, so our household was, in effect, marking late December’s days on an icky sort of advent calendar, hoping we’d all be better by the time we traveled to my parents’ house for Christmas.
When it was 3-year-old Sylvia’s turn, I knelt on the bathroom floor holding a pan and rubbing her back while she sat on the toilet. A draining sickness takes a quick toll on a little body, and she was wiped out. What energy remained, she channeled to angry indignance.
“I hate throwing up! I don’t want to be sick!” she hollered, a shiver in her shoulders and a trickle of vomit on her chin. She turned her pale, round face toward me and then to the wall, at which she directed a desperate glare. “I don’t want to be Sylvia now!” she yelled.
Late fall and early winter are prime time for influenza and other sociable viruses that move easily in cold air and among people during huggy-kissy holidays. Thanksgiving to New Year’s is a span of insufficient sleep, family drama, social engagements, fiscal-year-end hustling, and family budget and gifting stress. We want to be our best selves—for our greatest-hits holiday letters, if nothing else. Oh, also for our children, as behavioral exemplars during “the most wonderful time of the year.”
But it doesn’t always work out that way. Depression spikes nationally during the holiday season. Households like mine, where I have our Christmas playlist on shuffle for the entire month of December, probably do not temper the darkness of the holiday flip side. Traditions of up-, up-, up-tempo! Bake! Make! Sing! Decorate! Do! Party! are rather narrow. What sounds do we miss if we are intent on hearing only the ringing of laughter and sleighbells?
Deepest winter is chock full of celebrations ranging across human civilizations, history and present: It is a time of storytelling and ritual; of affirming relationships, moralities and foundational mythologies; of revelry, collective observance, gratitude and generosity. It is a time of both darkness and light, which makes sense. On some level, winter holidays are related to the winter solstice, when the sun reaches its lowest point on our horizon.
Solstice is comprised of the Latin word for sun—sol—and the verb “to stand still”—sistere. At the solstices, the sun is at its most extreme angles to the earth, and, from our perspective, it seems to stand still before reversing its path. The winter solstice marks the beginning of light’s return. It is a moment of hope at its most basic level. That it is also a moment of stillness is too important to overlook.
In some way, our New Years traditions do nod to this celestial pause: We take stock of the year past and list resolutions for the year to come. Individual reflection inheres in this process, as do quietness and clamor.
Sylvia’s declaration that she didn’t want to be Sylvia when Sylvia was sick is familiar. There have been plenty of times when I have not wanted to be myself—and not just when I was throwing up or when, as a young girl, I asked my uncle about legally changing my name to Emilee.
There is severe tension between not wanting to be me when I’m my Worst Lauren and the impossibility of being my Ideal Lauren. It is an uncomfortable tautness, and its release is contingent upon being okay with both my darkness and my lightness. I am Lauren either way, and I don’t get to not be myself when I’m at my worst. I am still myself when I’m at my best, even though it’s never ideal (which is bummer that I’m still coming to terms with).
I wouldn’t wish for a merry sick Christmas, a vomitus festivus. That said, despite everything, we’ve had a lovely, mellow time. Some of the Rockwellian constraints were off, thanks to sudden bathroom dashes and my sister wearing a face-mask so she didn’t spread strep throat. The kids have been wild and whiny; my nephew wiggled so much that he and his booster seat fell out of the chair at Christmas dinner; Sylvia has been an extravagant handful of tantrums. They’ve also played together remarkably well—we all have.
There is significant pressure towards perfection this time of year, to strive for and celebrate the lightness, exclusively. Regardless of the celebration or faith tradition, though, there also is a compulsion toward quietness and darkness. This year, it was in middle-of-the-night sick sessions with kids, but it’s always in our stories, songs and rituals—and our sky. I am glad for this. There is wisdom there, and comfort, as well as fear and unsettlement, and the lightness doesn’t rise without it.