This year is the 10th anniversary of my friend’s death on December 22nd, 2003. A number of years ago my aunt’s sister died on Christmas morning. A friend’s father-in-law died this morning.
This isn’t terribly unusual. People die all the time. But it feels like it is. In this season of togetherness and celebration and relatives stressing you out, it feels like a sin of some kind for people to die, or come close to it. It seems more tragic. And then I feel disrespectful for everyone who gets sick or into accidents or dies around the other 50 or so weeks of the year.
And does that feeling of Yuletide tragedy get pushed back further every year like the retail-drive Christmas season does?
It’s vaguely like how I feel bad for anyone born between mid-December and mid-January. Well, your birthday’s going to suck. Like that’s the worst thing that could happen around your birth, or like there aren’t other “inconvenient” days to be born throughout the year.
It feels like we’ve done this to ourselves. And by “we” I mean those who celebrate Christmas. If you don’t celebrate anything in late December/early January, someone’s death doesn’t necessarily take on extra and somewhat manufactured weight. Though western culture has done its damnedest to infect everyone with the Christmas spirit. I mean really, can’t we just leave the Jews alone to enjoy their movies and Chinese food?
Perhaps there are also historical ties. In the day, when people died in the winter (and this still may be the case, depending where you’re at), they couldn’t be buried right away. They pretty much literally had to be kept on ice until spring thaw when the body could be interred. So you had however many weeks or months of being indoors more, with more darkness outside (until December 21st, at least), and possibly more aloneness, to grieve, to think, and kind of… wait. There was that bit of closure that wasn’t possible because when spring came you were going to have to go through it again to some degree, if you chose to.
If you go way back, you have Solstice taking place around the same time as Christmas (not a coincidence). So there are ideas of the shift of darkness and the return of light and new life. You don’t have to look very hard to find where Christianity got its metaphors… But winter cold and darkness and loneliness and other seasonal hazards are real, and there’s little question why not all elderly or isolated people “don’t make it” til spring.
Blessedly, I have not had that many friends die throughout the year. I don’t have enough of a basis of comparison for whether I dwell on it more this time of year, or it makes me more sad. I do know the season comes with more baggage than most times of the year — for me and many others. This is why I have friends who don’t celebrate at all. In fact, they’ve taken years to divest themselves of obligations on The Day, in favour of eating badly, drinking heartily, and enjoying geeky and/or trashy entertainments. I admit to a certain envy.
Ultimately, though, right after a death during the holidays, there’s one concrete thing that would make a death you’re close to harder. The administrative details. You’re supposed to be winding down at work and gearing up for baking and shopping and all manner of social occasions. And all of a sudden that has to come to a screeching halt, replaced by hospitals and funeral homes and decision after decision. Except that all the festive stuff doesn’t entirely go away. The people and the decorations and the food. And you don’t get any time to exhale, to start processing.
I’m sure funeral directors and the like can verify that death doesn’t take holidays, nor display any particularly religious or secular affiliation at this, or any other time of year. But I suspect there are some things different about managing the mortal coil departures lounge this time of year.
The point of these musings? Nothing, really, beyond a brain dump of things on my mind lately, having had both birth and death wander by in close proximity. (That makes it sound like I recently miscarried or something. I didn’t.)
It’s December 21st, the shortest day, and longest night, of the year. Thomas never did tell us what we’re supposed to do about the return of the light…