Because of everything that is going on—finals ending a week ago, spending most of my break dog-sitting in an otherwise empty house, and this ridiculously hot and humid weather—I have sort of forgotten that is Christmas Eve.
It’s not that I don’t know Christmas is tomorrow or that I’ve forgotten I’m driving up in the morning to see my family. However, this year, Christmas feels more distant than it has in the past. I’m guessing the reason is that I have been thus far removed from a lot of the pomp and circumstance that surrounds Christmas: I was at school while my family put up the tree, I took an exam on my birthday (which always marks the two-week countdown), and, since Opa passed away, we haven’t had the annual family brunch that marked the holidays since as long as I can remember.
But there are times that I am suddenly reminded that, for so many people, the Christmas season started weeks ago. Yesterday, I turned into an unfamiliar neighborhood and was greeted by dazzling arrays of golds and greens and reds, lighted Santas on the rooftops, and LED snowmen that blinked and waved as if it wasn’t 80 degrees in the middle of December. And I stopped my car.
I was captivated by these snowmen. They are, most years, the only snowmen this part of Texas ever sees. On the rare occasion that it does snow, our snowmen are hardly more than foot-tall balls of mud, grass, and ice that we abandon quickly in favor of jumping on frozen trampolines. My sister, on a very unlikely November day years and years ago, proudly showed us her ice-mud sculpture and declared that she made made a “Mango”—which, even though Mango was our dog and her intent, was a fitting name because it was, in fact, the size and shape of a mango.
Such malformed snowmen are only to be expected this far south, but I had realized something long ago after trips up north or into the mountains: even where fluffy snowmen-snow is the norm, you rarely see the quintessential snowmen. They might be bigger and better than Texan ones, but they are still lopsided, streaked with debris, boasting faces only a mother would love.
So I find that there is something stark, and almost sad, about these effortless, perfect snowmen made of LEDs—not just because they are unrealistic, but because this is what we believe snowmen look like.
And as I spin around in the street and take in all the houses covered in Christmas lights, all these glittering fronts—I realize that this, too, is only what we believe Christmas looks like.
I am one of the fortunate few for whom Christmas is not an ordeal. Christmas dinner does not incite feelings of guilt or fatness. My family actually does like each other, even if it doesn’t always seem it. When I go home, I’m not finding myself repeating on loop a rehearsed speech about my sexuality, gender identity, or mental health. I’ve even been symptom-free long enough that I no longer have to endure questions about my chronic illnesses.
For many, though, the Christmas season is not so easy. Some people don’t have families to go home to. Some do, but choose not to because of toxic situations or a lack of acceptance. And many do go home, even though it kills them, because that’s what normal people are supposed to do, what people good at being people do.
Yesterday, my uncle was talking about a friend of his who is a divorce lawyer. My uncle once asked him, Is there a peak season for divorce? and his friend laughed and said that there was—right after holidays. Right after you’ve been forced to spend time with each other, plan events together, and live up to the glittering expectations of what Christmas is supposed to be like, people realize that their marriages aren’t going to last.
The key word here is realize. Christmas doesn’t create marriage problems, toxic family dynamics, or mental health issues—it reveals them. It reveals problems that already exist.
And while Christmas and other holidays might be unique in the degree of the pressures they put on individuals—pressures to be a perfect family member, to not just say “I’m okay” but be okay, to act in such a way that offends no one—it’s important to realize these pressures exist year-round. They tax each of us—mental illness or no—but we have all decided that we need to pretend they don’t, that we need to construct an image of ourselves that others are used to seeing.
But what we don’t realize is that everyone’s glittering front, just like ours, is a glittering facade.
The people we see getting sympathy for their problems are the ones who have Done Something Big—those who have climbed to the top of their careers, or who have made a difference in thousands of lives “despite their setbacks.” The stories portray mental illnesses as tiny little speed bumps, not roadblocks that take genuine effort to get past. So, when someone’s borderline personality disorder makes it difficult to hold a job, or someone’s depression makes getting out of bed every day a worthy feat—when we find that taking a shower is too much effort—we not only think that there is something wrong with our mental state, but wrong with us and our competence as a human being.
Of course THEY can get overcome their mental illnesses, we think. They glitter.
But here’s the thing: the world might seem like a bunch of LED snowmen with perpetual smiles and perfect form, but real snowmen melt when it’s 80 degrees outside.
In fact, real snowmen melt when it’s 35.
When our masks come crumbling down around the holidays it’s important to remember that someone who copes better is not a better person than you. Just because it looks like someone with your same problems has a better life—and even if they truly do have a better life—this does not mean that you are somehow bad at being depressed, bad at having a personality disorder, bad at being a person. And it certainly does not mean that you are unworthy of getting help.
We are all crooked snowmen, feeling ashamed that we aren’t like the LED ones across the street.
So please, this holiday season, just remember:
Hope isn’t only for those that glitter.