HauteLit from HotLanta: Holiday Nostalgia

Driving through Peachtree Battle this morning back from the library, all of the previous “this time of year’s” I’ve experienced in my life amalgamated into a fully-packed punch of nostalgia to my gut.  It’s probably due to the combination of books I happened to come across, the changing season and the area I was driving through.  Before the age of ten, ‘this time of year’ always meant a seven hour car ride to Atlanta from Jacksonville to visit with family and celebrate Thanksgiving.  Then weeks later, we would trek once more from our slow, beachy town in sweatshirts and shorts to the big city, under-dressed for the colder weather, to celebrate Christmas and to ring in the New Year.

It was easy.  We went to one place and everyone was there.   I read in the back of the car and day dreamed imaginary novels I would write one day.  I would stop every hour to watch trees, first lined with Spanish moss, then dappled with all of the colors of fall streaming past my window.  My head would bob back and forth as I would pick one tree out at a time, to keep it static in my window so I could stop the blur and see the details.  Eventually my sister and I stopped arguing in the backseat about nothing important long enough to drift to sleep.  And then came the magical moment, perfectly placed amidst our slumber so we never knew if it was real or a dream.  My parents would wake us up for the all-important moment when the skyline would appear.  Skyscrapers with their golden orange beacons would pierce the darkened sky.  We’d drive through the nicer areas of Atlanta adorned in holiday lights.  Compared to our spread out, suburban, warm town, Atlanta seemed like a Winter Wonderland, which is amusing since compared to the rest of the nation, it barely sees any snow.  But, because of this drive, because of the fact that Atlanta was always the special place we went to celebrate the holidays with our entire family, I will always love it the most.

At a certain point, we moved to Atlanta and I had that first life experience when the idealistic picture you create of the special moments in childhood are just that: idealistic.  Reality hit and it hit hard.  My family was changing and I could not put my finger on how or why it was changing.  Now the magic of the holidays was lost to a stream of endless events including different groups of family, friends and neighbors.  My parents seemed even more pressed to make our family appear ‘perfect,’ to the outside world because now we were a part of this place all of the time.  The perfection that had once made childhood so magical now became constant pressure and at times painful.  The holidays were a chance for us to put on a production to say, “We’re not only normal, we’re perfect.”  The right holiday outfit for every holiday party, the rehearsed, “this is what I’m doing and how I’m successful speech,” and the perfect amount of baked goods and Italian food: we had it all on the outside.  All the while, under the surface of our immediate family fabric lay the rusty grit of deterioration.

In high school it became clear when my parents divorced and my dad came out that no family is perfect and most have secrets.   In fact, our constant attempt to be so made us so much less interesting, made us so much emptier.  We were perfectly painted shells.  I wished with every fiber in my being that the bubble we had created to protect ourselves, the superficial insulation of suburban socialite savvy had been burst long ago so that I could have been, we all could have been ourselves instead of the Stepford family we had become.

When I graduated high school and went to Georgia Tech nearby, I began to dread the holidays, the separate celebrations, the divisions that had been built up between us all, and the stifling expectation to show that I was “doing OK, in fact I was perfect.”   I was presently surprised when I came home.  Of course, there was an initial barrier of discomfort to break through since most of my life up until that point had worked one way and now I had to reteach myself how to interact with family and friends with this new identity, this more real version of myself.  But, ultimately with everything laid out on the table open and honest for all to see, we were a better family.  As people, we each became more genuine.  Instead of spending time trying to be perfect and judging everyone else as becomes habit in the suburbs, we could just be us because there was no impossible bar to reach anymore.

Now, I live in Atlanta again and this time by my own choice.  I could have gone anywhere, but in the end there was nowhere else I wanted to go.    The experience of living here again is sometimes a mixed bag.  Driving through at night, I still get that magical feeling and remember my childhood whimsy and idealism.  In the daylight back to the suburbs, sometimes I remember that awkward stretch where I was old enough to realize that all wasn’t right, but did yet know why.  This year, I have a chance to make my own way.  My boyfriend and I now attend each other’s family holiday events together and even plan to host our own.  If I were the old me, I would try to push out the past, or to let that fully packed punch of nostalgia break me completely, but instead I choose to embrace it.  I’m formed of my past, but that doesn’t mean that’s who I’ll be forever.  I don’t strive to have a perfect life anymore, because that’s impossible.  I don’t have anything to boast about at the holidays, I can’t afford a new, perfect outfit, and I may or may not have time to bake an array of pies and cookies.   I’m not perfect and in fact I’m taking huge risks and I could potentially fall so deep I’ll never be able to scratch my way out, but for the first time in my life, I’m sincerely excited about the person I am and what I’m doing.

This whole reverie and subsequent revelation isn’t original or new.  Many celebrate with family regardless of which holiday or event.  Many feel the pressure to please or impress family or friends they don’t see except for certain times of year.  Many families that have been sideswiped by divorce, secrets or tragedy.  It’s taken me awhile though to realize this because for so long I was sheltered by our unrealistic portrayal of ourselves.  My growth was stunted in realizing how the “real world” works.  So, I share this selfishly, to let it all out because I held so much in for so long.  If you can relate, please share your holiday nostalgia, your imperfect world because we can learn from each other.

Books Read in the Back of the Car:

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett

Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

Hard Times for These Times, Charles Dickens

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

Amelia’s Notebook, Marissa Moss

Nancy Drew, ‘Carolyn Keene’

Poems by A Nonny Mouse, Jack Prelutsky

Music from my Holiday Nostalgia:

Mannheim Steamroller


Soundtrack from Moonstruck

Dean Martin

Frank Sinatra

Movies we watched while helping Mom in the Kitchen:


A Little Princess

The Secret Garden

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

Little Women

Recipes we Made:

Caroler’s Crunch

Italian Stuffed Shells

Thumbprint Cookies

 Eggplant Parmesean

Poppyseed bread

Pumpkin Pie

Cherry Pie