Bright, fluorescent lights wrap around every tree and line every building in sight. The crystalline snow reflects the twinkle of these lights, making them both shine brighter, erasing the darkness of the 6 p.m. sky. Christmas music echoes through the speakers located all throughout downtown Rochester, M.I. and small green wreaths can be seen in every store window. The music plays quietly, drowned out by the sounds of conversation and laughter, yet the annoyingly syrupy carols are all I can focus on. No matter how bundled up I am, the cold creeps into my body, making me regret leaving the house. My mittens and bulky scarf cannot block it and neither can the three layers of thick sweaters under my father’s fall jacket, the only jacket I am willing to wear since it makes me feel closer to him. The snow covers the entire sidewalk, soaking my sneakers down to my socks. Each step I take floods my shoes with more snow, sending chills through my close-to-numb body, overpowering any of the warmth I get from the hot latte in my hand. Families file into the streets as they flood out of the nearby restaurants to take their slow post-dinner strolls. They walk in front of me, looking up at the lights while chattering about how pretty the colors are. The snow seeps into their shoes, but they seem to laugh it off. Their coats look thinner than mine, yet the cold doesn’t seem to bother them, only me.
It is the start of the holiday season. The season of Chestnut Praline Starbucks lattes, stale gingerbread houses, sold-out wrapping paper and maxed-out credit cards. It’s the season filled with unwanted presents, eggnog and cheesy movies. The season of giving, love and family. The jolliest time of the year. But for me, it’s the season of loneliness. The season of seeing all my friends celebrating with their huge families, and the season of missing mine.
My parents always tried to make the best of Christmas even though, coming from India, they had never celebrated before their move to Michigan. They bought a big fake pine tree to put up, along with hundreds of ornaments. My father always hung lights outside and bought little stuffed reindeer to decorate our house’s interior. Sometimes my mother would buy gingerbread house sets for my brother and me to decorate even though neither of us enjoyed eating the gingerbread afterward. But we’d sit there at our dining table decorating, faces gleaming from excitement. They would spend days figuring out what gifts to place under the tree — both from them and from Santa. And when we were younger, we would bake our own cookies to give to Santa. My parents took Christmas seriously so my brother and I would enjoy it. And we did. We’d spend the weeks before Christmas making PowerPoint presentations as our wish list. We’d count down the days until we could put the tree up. We’d beg my dad to help him put the lights up. We’d wake up at 6 a.m. Christmas morning and run downstairs to wake up our parents. It was our favorite holiday and favorite time of the year.
Over the years, our Christmas mornings slowly started later and ended earlier. My parents started having to wake us up to come to the tree instead of us waiting at the end of their bed. We stopped putting cookies out since none of us believed in Santa anymore. We sat far apart under the tree and opened our presents awkwardly, knowing that in about 5 minutes we’d go off and do our own thing. There was no unity two minutes after the last present was unwrapped. My mother would go to the kitchen, my father to his office, and my brother and me to our rooms or the couch, sitting in silence. Our family just felt like four strangers, sitting in the same house.
To my parents, Christmas meant decorations, cookies and gifts. Their understanding of Christmas only came from movies and my mother’s experience in a Catholic school. They thought Christmas had two sides: the materialistic side and the religious side. They thought we liked this materialistic side of Christmas. But the materialistic side of Christmas is nothing without having people to share it with [“materialistic side of Christmas” twice is a bit overwhelming to read, I’d taken out the “of Christmas” on either the first or second]. They never realized how much I wanted the third side of Christmas: the family aspect of it all. Meeting your cousins and grandparents, opening the presents together. Spending Christmas Eve staying up with all the kids, trying to wait for Santa. Eating dinner together as a big family. All things I never got to experience.
My parents and my brother are the only family I have in America. The rest of my family is back home in India. For a while, my family would go visit every other year. But as my brother and I got older, summers started to get busy; he took summer classes, so we couldn’t go, and then when he was finally free, I had to deal with summer school of my own. And now with my brother in medical school and me in college, I can’t even imagine when we will have the time to go again. I feel so emotionally distant from my family in India nowadays since I never see them. I’ve always had a hard time communicating with people through the phone. I barely text anyone, even my friends I see more often. And knowing that it could be years before I see them pushes me away from even trying to stay in contact. I’m scared that if I keep contact, I’ll feel worse that I cannot be with them. So I always fail to keep in touch with extended family, which only makes me feel worse when December rolls around.
So Christmas feels lonely, and every year it only feels lonelier. As a kid, I was too wrapped up in the idea of getting presents that I never focused on the family aspect. But as I get older, the gifts mean less and less and the absence of my family hurts more and more. The second we open the presents on Christmas morning, the holiday is over. We all separate and do our own thing. No family dinner, no Christmas parties, only silence.
Since I used to visit my family in the summer, we would often get to celebrate my brother’s birthday with everyone. We’d wake up at four in the morning to quietly decorate the house together with streamers. Sometimes my grandmother would head to my brother’s and my favorite bakery an hour away to pick up cakes just for the both of us. Other times my cousin and I would bake a chocolate cake together. We would get up early in the morning and search up recipes together. At the time I was too young to help out much, so my cousin baked the cake while I followed her around, annoying her from talking too much. Celebrating with my family only made me feel closer to them. It gave me this indescribable feeling as if this was where I belonged. This euphoric feeling now seems unattainable. We’d all spend the entire day together. The house was filled with nothing but laughter, a sound so comforting and different compared to the silence on Christmas morning,
My friends will keep themselves busy this holiday season since they all have families to celebrate with. I’m happy for them, but a part of me is jealous. Jealous that their families live near them, and they get to spend time with them. Most of my friend’s extended family moved to America or started visiting often after they were born in order to stay close with their family. But this was never an option for my family due to the cost and legality issues that come along with it. My other friends found groups of people here that became their families. They all bonded over their isolation and now spend every Christmas and every Thanksgiving together. But my family has never had that. The friends we’ve made have groups of their own and spend the holidays with them. And so every year, my family celebrates alone.
This year is the first time I’ve actually dreaded the upcoming holiday season. I don’t want to go home to celebrate, but I also don’t want to be alone in my apartment. I don’t want my parents to put up the Christmas tree or any of the decorations, and I don’t want to hear Christmas music on the radio. I don’t want my mother to make jokes while pretending Santa is real, and I don’t want to decorate a gingerbread house. It’s all just a reminder of how far my family is from me and how long it will probably be until I can see them again. I just want the season to be over. I want my family to come to America — so I can have deep conversations with my grandma before she gets too old to ever visit, bake cakes with my cousins and hang out with my nephews so that they can remember me as their aunt and not some random person they met once. And I want to spend Christmas laughing around the tree with all of them instead of sitting at home in silence.
MiC Columnist Roshni Mohan can be reached at email@example.com.