Have Yourself a Very Little Christmas

There are some things we don’t need to change this year.

We can still listen to Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas Album. There will be plenty of Vince Guaraldi, too. We are lucky enough to have eggnog, popcorn, and candy canes. Luxuries, all of them. I’m feeling very fortunate to have my children home, cooking and singing and playing games. 

But the family I traditionally gather with – mere miles away – will all be voices on the phone, and not faces at the table. The movie we always choose so carefully to fit into the time and space between breakfast and dinner, picking a theater between home and the destination. Not this year; just the living room. 

I will not have to decide between packing the presents in the trunk and the food in with the passengers (who can hold things that might spill) or packing the food in the trunk and putting the presents in with the passengers (who can hold things that might break.) The car will sit in the driveway, as it does six days a week, anyhow.  

Because holidays are made for nostalgia, I’m thinking of a very little Christmas, when I was 15. My father had been killed just a few months previously, and the utterly unexpected loss was still impacting every decision. We had moved from a spacious house to a small condo, and would move shortly after that to a much smaller apartment. We were getting groceries from our church, and when my mother told us there wouldn’t be a tree, we were all downcast.

It seemed as if every thing we had felt was simply a birthright was revealed as a privilege we no longer qualified for. Never mind all the Whos Down in Whoville, boxes and bags were considered essential. We were introduced to the fact that Christmas comes to those who can afford it. 

When a friend turned up with a tree, we had to not find fault with the fact that it was small enough to sit on a table, and just be glad we had some green in the house. Comically or cosmically, our box of Christmas decorations had gone missing with the the move, and we had nothing to put on it. 

But the next day there were lights, just a simple string of white bulbs that easily wrapped around the little tree. (There may or may not have been shop-lifting involved; it wasn’t me, and I’m sure the statute of limitations is up, anyway. ) We found a stash of construction paper left over from some school project, and a box of markers, and created an instant tradition of asking everyone to make a paper cut-out of their name and put it on the tree. No ornament hangers? Re-purposed paper clips work, too. 

For the next week, everyone who came to visit made a version of their name. Some cut out circles and just wrote their name in the space – Some cut each letter into sequence. I took to inviting friends over just to have their names on the tree. And friends, knowing how things were, rarely came empty handed. There were bags of tangerines, and tins of cookies that came with them. 

Our Christmas dinner came from a food bank, and my mother cooked, torn between gratitude and furious humiliation. 

I’m knowing that there are plenty of folks in just that space right now – split between the gratitude of having something, and the bitter fury that this is all they have. So many families mourning the loss of grandparents, parents, friends and neighbors. The statistics I’ve seen say that more than 60% of the people getting groceries from food banks right now have never had to ask before.

While hunger always improves the taste of food, anger doesn’t. 

My own fury right now is directed at all those in the federal government who allowed this to happen. We have had more deaths than any other country in the world, we have more children going to bed hungry, and of course, the corresponding increase in self-destructive behavior from adults who are mistakenly thinking it’s their fault. Long term isolation is creating ferocious mental health problems. It did not have to be like this. It’s a huge systemic failure, created by people whose philosophy is that some people are more important than others. 

There are some things we need to change, right now. 

But first, let yourself enjoy an actual day off. Everyone is suffering from stress, mild or chronic. Many of us are on the brink of losing it all. Taking a moment to savor the simple joy of being alive. Let your loved ones know that you love them. Let yourself know that you will get through this. 

Even a very little Christmas can be a moment to enjoy. 

Judith Martin-Straw



The Actors' Gang


  1. Thanks for sharing your childhood story with us. Most would bury the parts we want hidden; the parts that hurt. I appreciate your courage to share and remind us of our good fortune and health.

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