What I Learned Beneath a Brightly Lit Tree

Under A Christmas Tree


Holidays haven’t been the happiest times for me. I’ve wanted them to be. I’ve wanted them to be what they weren’t. I’ve wanted them to be like what I’ve seen advertised. I’ve wanted to feel the way others have felt. I’ve wanted the warm fuzzies and this year, I got them.

As a child, holidays were always my favorite time of year. I would lie down and hide under the Christmas tree when the all the lights were out and I would stare at the shimmering blues and yellows and reds and whites of the many  Christmas lights strung around the tree.  I would get lost in them.  I would imagine I lived in a world where they did, a world that was warm and joyus and wonderful, in other words a world that was nothing like the world in which I lived. My world was beating and abuse. The holiday world I imagined was loving and tender. I would lie under that tree wishing for eternity and when the holidays were over, when it was January 2nd, my imagined world was replaced by a real world and that real world was dark and lonely and filled with fear and dread. The soft green needles of Christmas were replaced by the dry and brittle needles of a new year and that tree, that temporary haven of mine, was tossed into the trash. If any of you experienced something similar, let me say this, with all candor and sincerity…I understand.

Another ritual I wished would go away were visits to relatives. While some families cherished their times together, I shuddered at the thought. It was another place where I didn’t fit, where I didn’t get what others got and, as a result, I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to feel more alone with people than I felt without them and large gatherings almost always had that effect on me. Alienation, loneliness, isolation…ugh. I’d rather stay at home and check out or disconnect or withdrawal. And when I would, when I would ignore invites, when they were over, my mom would come home with stories from the events of the day and I would feel I had missed out. It was a catastrophe either way. I couldn’t seem to win.

In most cases, I wound up going to family functions regardless. Sometimes I plastered on a smile, often times I just frowned. I certainly didn’t offer to help out or participate or be a part of. I sat on my island of isolation, the foundation of which wasn’t entirely of my own making. In part, my lack of efforts to include myself in the mix contributed, but there was another ingredient that I had far less to do with that did damage also, selfishness. Untreated. If you know it, you know loneliness like few others do. If you don’t, you probably wouldn’t want to wish you did. It’s not fun to be surrounded by loved ones or familiar faces and feel vacant and empty inside. Strangely, I would feel more alone in crowded rooms than I would feel when I was alone.

Under these conditions, it’s not difficult to imagine me doing what I said I did before I drank, avoiding festivities.  [The drinking era doesn’t count because while I could stomach being around others, they couldn’t stomach being around me. I don’t blame them. When I drank, I thought I was clever and comedic. Others thought I was an ass. Sadly, treating my alcoholism with alcohol gives me relief from you but it doesn’t give you relief from me. While I feel better, you feel worse. What I’d prefer to focus on and compare are the times of untreated alcoholism before I drank and what’s been happening as of late, a period of treated alcoholism where I no longer drink.]

Fast forward to recently.  In 2008, my mom died.  I got a call and an invite from a cousin I hadn’t talked to in some time.  Joanne was a cousin from a side of the family I hadn’t had much contact with as a child probably because of two reasons, distance and age. My aunt and uncle on this side of family didn’t live close (as close as my father may have wanted) and all their kids were grown when I was still young. I’m the baby of the family, not only my immediate family, but of my entire generation. To put things in perspective, Joanne’s daughter is a month older than I am. The call I received was an invite to Thanksgiving. I went. I was met with smiles from somewhat unfamiliar faces and I awkwardly learned all the names I should have already known. My cousins were forgiving and accommodating. In short, they were kind. Less than a month later, I received another call and another invite, this time to Christmas. Reluctantly, but with mild optimism, I went. The fear of being alone on my first Christmas without my mother was greater than the fear of being greeted by those who were related in name only. Again, my cousins were gracious and welcoming. I wasn’t used to it. I cried in private, partly because I missed my mom and partly because I’m easily overtaken when people demonstrate a sincere interest in me.

The following year, I got at least three more invitations for all the major holidays. I attended those as well. Since then, whenever there’s a celebration, I’m invited and I go. I don’t go out of obligation or duty however, although I would because I’ve learned what I “feel” like doing has very little to do with what I will do. I’m old enough to know its a good idea to do the right thing even if I don’t feel like doing it. That’s the difference between children and adults; children do what they want to do, adults do what they’re supposed to do.  Sadly, I’m young enough to sometimes ignore my own best sense. Nevertheless, in these cases I don’t. I don’t ignore my best sense. Instead, I go. I attend. I participate and for the first time in my life, I feel “a part of” at these gatherings and at these family events.

I think I’ve finally figured out why. I think the reason is two fold; one, I am treating my selfishness. I’ve been sober nearly 15 years. By going to meetings (the more I go to the more I like others and the more others like me) and practicing principles which are foreign to me, principles like “go and give”, I’m able to contribute to not only others by accepting their invite but to myself by being of service. I give to others what I’d like to receive and as a result I’m blessed with a feeling of belonging.

This dovetails into the second reason; when I used to go to family functions my thought was always “Where’s mine?” What can I get out of this? Why aren’t others asking about me? Why aren’t I the center of attention? And when can I leave?” I was miserable and I was lonely. That should come as no surprise. If you’ve read a Christmas Carol you know what’s coming. When I attend functions and festivities these days, I try to do differently. I try to say things like “Here’s yours. Can I get you anything else? What’s the latest with you? Congratulations on your most recent milestone! You’d look better in something if it weren’t grey (old habits and criticisms die hard). You must be proud” and the like. I try to demonstrate in them as sincere an interest as they demonstrate in me. I give others interest and attention and in so doing I make some startling discoveries. The warm fuzzies I got fleetingly while surrounded by lights when I was curled up beneath a Christmas tree have returned. (These same warm fuzzies I get when I hear the Vince Guaraldi trio Peanuts soundtrack. I didn’t mention that earlier for fear of embarrassment but it’s true. I love that music. It reminds me of the innocence of my youth). And I found these warm fuzzies in the most unlikely of places, places which, for years, I tried to not set foot in. I’ve found warm fuzzies in rooms filled with large gatherings of family.  And how do I get these warm fuzzies?  I get them the way I get most things in life…by giving.
And where did I learn this?  In a world originating out loneliness, one beneath a brightly lit tree.


10 thoughts on “What I Learned Beneath a Brightly Lit Tree

  1. I am so glad you wrote this! You did an excellent job! Such a relative (no pun intended) topic that I am sure many others will embrace.
    Keep on with pen and ink! We, the world, need to hear from you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My friend, I can’t begin to tell you how good this post is. Your openess and courage has provided a vast amount of wisdom for those in the same boat that you were once in, and provides them with hope for a way out of the darkness into a light that was once only hoped for.
    If I may draw a comparison between “A Christmas Carol,” and “The Picture Of Dorian Gray.” It is a reversal of roles brought by a change in conscience. Ebenezer was changed by his willingness to accept the outside influences of good that transformed selfishness to selflessness. Dorian, on the contrary, by his will, allowed his outside influences of evil to transform selflessness to selfishness. The light in Ebenezer’s eyes showed that he viewed a new road toward heaven. The darkness in Dorian’s eyes showed that he viewed sadly the road to perdition.
    My friend, I believe you know this better than most that we choose which road we travel.
    Happy New Year and much joy with those you hold dear. Therein lies our true treasure.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love It! Tender, honest, heartfelt.
    I worked with so many kiddos who so looked forward to Christmas Vacation. The same students who returned to school in January disheartened. We did our best every year to heal those broken hearts.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. April, a child’s disappointment is a hard thing to stomach. How fortunate your students were to have you and the other teachers to comfort them. I’m sure they appreciated it.


  5. I Just came across this as I was scanning. You sound so good. I remember meeting you a long time ago at my sister’s and your Uncle’s home in Arletta, Ca. I knew your mom who was my age at the time. Many memories and good home made food too.

    Take care Peter. Be happy. Hang on to the good memories. You are a great writer, perhaps because of all you have experienced and put to memory.

    A. M. (Sandy) Leonti

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are such a sweetheart, Detta! I wish I had that memory from childhood. Luckily, I have many since then, some of which find their way onto my page just like you pointed out. Thank you for the kind words and the encouragement!


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