There’s a Christmas song by Jackson 5-era Michael Jackson that appears on the 1973 double album—A Motown Christmas—that has been beautifully destroying me since I was a child. It’s called “Little Christmas Tree” and it is, by far, the most depressing holiday song in the Motown Christmas canon.
The song tells the story of Christmas love lost (we never learn what lil’ MJ lost in the song, a parent, a friend, a romantic partner…it’s not evident), but it’s all about being left alone on Christmas Eve, like that one, lonely little Christmas tree nobody wanted to buy, still for sale despite the fact that the holiday is about to be over in five minutes.
The song made me want to cry as a kid. (Why was this kid so sad? Was it because he was raised Jehovah’s Witness and didn’t get to celebrate the very holiday he was singing about?) Now as an adult, it’s a full-blown sob session. Especially this year, one year after my Christmas-loving mother’s death from Alzheimer’s.
Once upon a time, I didn’t understand why the holidays would make anyone sad (other than that MJ song). My mom was still alive and healthy. Our family was Christmas crazy, buying gifts, putting up elaborate decorations, preparing extravagant meals. Or I should say, our mother was Christmas crazy, as she was the main person doing all these things or pushing for them. With her gone, there was a bit of “what’s the point?” hanging over the holidays this year. A depressing pall, threatening to cover me in misery, and it almost did until I decided I was going to lean into Christmas, rather than pretend it wasn’t happening.
Now, I don’t have kids…or a partner. There is literally no one in my life, save my little 7-year-old nephew Alexander, who gives a rip that it’s Christmas. (And even he looks at the whole holiday sideways as he has two childless aunts and a widower grandfather who have nothing better to do with their money than buy him shit year-round, rendering Christmas almost meaningless.) So leaning into the holidays this year was more an experiment in if I embrace my fear and anxiety, will I conquer it?
The first thing was to RSVP for every holiday party I could get into (which was more wishful thinking than reality for one reason I’ll get to later). Then, I bought a tree, lights, some ribbon trim and a ton of ornaments. The tree was not a real tree, as I was born and raised on a “fake tree” and know nothing else. And the ornaments were pretty but very cheap. Not the gorgeous, easy-to-break ones my mom had. You could slam these bad boys into the floor and maybe they’d dent, but they’re more ping pong ball than traditional glass ornament.
The next thing I did was plan, not one, but two, holiday parties at my house. (I love any excuse for a party.) Only one happened though, as by the time the all-female friend celebration could get put on I came down with a strong head cold and had to cancel the whole thing less I poison all my closest friends with my sinus infection germs. This possibly was for the best as I was struggling with this head cold and sinus infection off and on since Thanksgiving when it first reared its head, leaving a series of canceled holiday parties in its wake.
Lastly, I meticulously plotted and planned on Christmas presents for my father, sisters and nephew. I was especially obsessed with my father’s gift. Literally, a man who has everything he wants, he’s probably the hardest person to buy for. My sisters are pretty simple—practical things they can use and reuse in their homes and gift cards are their preferred presents. My father? He doesn’t want or need anything one can actually purchase. So most of the time we end up just giving him clothes or cookware, as he doesn’t really “shop.” So when he needs new clothes or new pots and pans, it’s on us to find them, otherwise, he’ll continue to wear the same worn outfits and use the same jacked-up cookery that’s older than me.
For my father, I commissioned two painted portraits of my mother—one as a young woman and one as an older woman, both surrounded by flowers—made by artist Maya Smith.
The younger portrait, she is offset by red roses, my dad’s favorite flower to buy my mom, and in the older portrait, she is surrounded by tropical flowers, the kind I liked to give her. While I was more than thrilled with the results, as it got closer and closer to Christmas I fretted over whether or not to actually gift them to my father. After all, art is subjective and our tastes are very different. I’m into more abstract art and illustrator work, while my father likes hyper-realism. Smith specializes in portraiture that kind of blends both. Meaning, the portraits look like my mother but aren’t hyper-real, but do have cool details, like her freckles and beautiful smile. I told my oldest sister Denise that if our father does not like these portraits I may actually cry, as this was my over-the-top, try-too-hard effort to both honor our mother, and his wife, but not do a repeat of last year’s gift—a crowd-pleasing special photo book I had made for him of pictures of my mom. Next year, I am just getting this man socks, cash or a plane ticket, as this was far too nerve-wracking.
So did leaning into the holidays work? Sort of. I kept myself so busy, I was definitely less sad than I started out this holiday season. And I got a lot of joy out of my Christmas tree, coming up with a creative gift for my dad (even though it made me insane) and relistening to A Motown Christmas on Spotify.
The Christmases of old may be long gone for me, but I can still make new traditions and rituals. I can make the holidays whatever I want them to be. This year, I reveled in nostalgia, but next year, maybe I’ll just go to Turks and Caicos and avoid the whole thing.
One thing I’m not going to do is listen to that damn depressing MJ song. Not gonna get me again, A Motown Christmas. Next year, I’m skipping that joint.