Delightful surprises could lurk behind the anticipated ‘Bah Humbug’ of a new widow’s Christmas



For many recent widows and widowers, the idea of celebrating their first Christmas without their spouse opens a window of dread akin to being force-fed a fruitcake.

As unique individuals, we have different ways of dealing with the grief of finding ourselves alone during a holiday dedicated to family celebrations and long-held rituals and traditions. Some of us may refuse to do any holiday decorating, including any kind of Christmas tree. We may hole up in our widow’s quarters and shut out the world, wallowing in self-pity. Totally understandable.

My high school friend Don, a widower for many years now, admits he hated the idea of Christmas, since he had spent every holiday with his beloved Mary since age 17. He felt like his life was over when the holidays rolled around after her November 1 death. All his memories were wrapped up in her and he just knew he could never top the life he had once lived.

He knows now he was wrong. His daughter would not listen to his protests that he just wanted to be left alone for Christmas. He spent the holidays with her and his son-in-law’s extended family, including his Jewish and Lutheran parents. It was such a different celebration, it temporarily took his mind away from his sorrow. Each holiday since has been a little easier, even while he never forgets to honor his late wife’s memory.

For another high school friend, Donna, doing something different over the holidays helped her get through that first Christmas without her husband. “Trying to make everything the same brings up too many memories.” She reports that instead of the big family dinner, her family had a chili cook off and hit the Dollar Store for silly gifts as prizes for games. She also made a special remembrance tree ornament for herself and each of the adult kids.

“Also remember that there will be times when your spouse’s death is going to hit like a ton of bricks,” she advises, adding the examples of hearing a certain song, seeing a Christmas movie, a gift, anything. “It’s okay to have some mini-breakdowns,” she concludes.

For myself, this first holiday without my husband is punctuated with distractions. I am having the kitchen re-decorated and trying hard not to get sheetrock dust and glue anywhere near the ingredients for holiday confections that I insist on making, just like I have every year since I was old enough to follow my own mother’s example. I will never forget her making beautiful Swedish tea rings decorated with frosting and green and red maraschino cherries to give as gifts to friends and neighbors . . . (and she was German, not Swedish, but they were works of art that I drooled over).

This first year I have tried to follow the admonitions of my church to make Advent a mini-Lent through almsgiving. I went through the massive and unnecessary multitudes of our holiday decorations and gave many of them to a local nursing home. I will be going to that same nursing home on Christmas Day to have dinner with my husband’s stepmother, even though she will not remember the celebration a few minutes after I leave.

On Christmas Eve, the time I dread the most, I will be singing with a choir at two services, then having a few of the members of the group to my house for a buffet. One of them is a man who just lost his wife after a nine-year battle with cancer and is himself suffering from Parkinson’s, and the man moved this week into an assisted living facility.

I predict, that with this activity, I will fly through the holidays relatively unscathed and land in the doldrums of January just in time for a meltdown. But why borrow trouble, right? If my friends and acquaintances can get through a tough time, I certainly can too.


For now, as the days dwindle in the lead-up to a major annual event, surprises and delights are surely in store. New memories will be made, especially with a 15-month-old grandson whose wonder at twinkle lights and a fat bearded man in red can be soaked up vicariously and eagerly, along with some cuddles and kisses. A new vulnerability will lead me to do things like I did this morning and be moved to tears by an article in the newspaper about slave labor in Thailand that produces much of the shrimp we eat.

The rawness of emotion that I now wear on my sleeve like a Girl Scout badge may allow me to feel and experience precisely what I need in a season dedicated to remembering the birth of One who will dry our tears and lead us to a reunion with all our loved ones.

Retirement holidays: Practical antiques and diminished expectations


Clap on!. . . Clap off!

Someone used a clapper on my holiday brain.

The career-years mode always clapped things on about Thanksgiving. Like an automaton, I followed its ON button to get the first batch of fudge and cookies made and in the freezer, holiday decorating accomplished that first weekend (with at least a little touch in every room) and Christmas cards addressed and mailed no later than Dec. 17. Somewhere in that manic month I managed to work in some solitude and peace, since that was the guilt-inducing admonition hanging over my head and urging me to wrap things up so I could enjoy the fruits of all that labor.

Enter retirement and a new set of self-expectations. Yep, the clapper done clapped off.

Here it is December 4. No cookies or fudge can be found in their collector tins in the freezer. I may not send out any Christmas cards for the first time in my adult life. And the decorating so far is confined to a wreath at the door, a lesser wreath on the back porch, a holiday lava lamp on a what-not shelf and, horror-of-horrors, one of those ceramic lighted Christmas trees on a table in the foyer.

You know the kind I mean. The same tree that’s been making the rounds on Facebook. You’re supposed to click “Like” if you remember them.

Like? Heck! We have one and we treasure it. Lemonade Man, the in-house artist, made it in a ceramics class, way-back-when. It’s always the holiday item that brings the most enjoyment when we haul it out of the basement. Lemonade Man says, “Why don’t we use that for our only Christmas tree this year?” I’m tempted, but reply that any presents we wrap to put under it may result in totally hiding the thing.

The Schwan’s man deflated our ceramic tree holiday spirit today when he stepped in the door and said, “Wow!  I feel like I’m in my Grandma’s house. She has a tree just like this.” She made hers in a ceramics class too.

But we no longer care about being embarrassed by our holiday antiques or that we are living in the dark ages of holiday decorating. We’re actually in the same category when it comes to kitchen cookware. Not only do I member cooking in white pyrex dishes with a blue corn flower design, I still use those puppies every day. That’s another Facebook post that keeps taunting me to like it.

Since the clapper clapped off this year, there is no little elf on a shelf whispering me to get a move on. So instead of going downstairs for another load of Ho-Ho, I watch a movie on Netflix in the middle of the day. Shame on me.

Lemonade Man sits at the kitchen table and watches a neighbor put lights on the outside of his house. I casually mention that we have the same kind of lights in a locker in the basement, but then make no protest when he replies, “Well, that’s a good place for them.”

Retirement clapper victims morph into down-sizers. This means that a mountain of unused holiday decorations made a trip to the Goodwill store last spring. Excess items from the linen closet and some kitchen cabinets met the same fate. And when I put away the Thanksgiving decor this week, the ceramic turkey soup tureen and a matching, but chipped platter, got added to the pile of clothing and bedding at the City Union Mission drop-off.

And all those holiday shopping flyers and catalogs that get stuffed in the daily paper or through the mail slot? Don’t tell the statisticians and media folks, but they no longer hold any allure . . . no longer entice us with their promise of the latest must-haves. Whenever we buy anything these days, it’s because it’s a replacement for something that broke. And all purchases are screened with the question, “Is it something that will have to go in an estate sale?”

Christmas will still come to the house of New Retirement Grinches. But it will be more modest and subdued. My daughter-in-law made a pointed comment last weekend about her anticipation of my fudge. And the artificial tree will be brought upstairs on the electric stair-lift that takes away any excuses for not toting heavy things. But even before retirement we learned to keep the lights and the unbreakable ornaments on it, cover it with a plastic bag, and thus save ourselves hours of work each year.

Call us grumpy grinches, but we’re not stressed this year. I’ll go get the tree as soon as we finish this movie. The holiday clapper clapped off and it sure is a relief.