What do you think about when someone mentions Christmas? Usually, images of Santa, falling snowflakes, ugly sweaters, family gatherings, and gift-giving are conjured. For most people, there’s typically a cheery feeling that's summoned when thinking about the Christmas holidays and the many festivities that surround it. For me, however, Christmas wasn’t always the most wonderful time of year. Not because of some huge dramatic event that prevented me from enjoying it, but because of how and where I usually end up spending my Christmas time.
So when I was asked to write about a song for the Sufjan Christmas Calendar, I immediately thought of “Did I Make You Cry On Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!).” Besides having a quintessentially Sufjan Stevens title, what I love about this song is the way it confronts how Christmas can be a conflicting or even depressing time period despite all the holiday cheer that surrounds it.
I was born in the town of Littleton, Colorado. About twenty minutes outside of Denver, Littleton is one of the many large suburbs that make up the greater Denver area. When I was just a year old, I moved away from Littleton with my parents to California’s Bay Area, where I grew up and spent the next 18 years of life. I grew accustomed to the diversity of people, the lack of seasons, and generally very much enjoyed my new California life. The only times I saw the state I was born in (or my extended family who still lived there) was on trips during school breaks.
After growing up in California, it was always a bit of a shock going to spend the holidays with people who were different from me. They had grown up hunting, most had spent time in the Navy, and the activities that they used to pass the time felt completely foreign. Coming from Colorado, they also had much different views on the world than the ones I was used to hearing in California. Aside from the usual small talk that happens when you see someone again for the first time in months, there weren’t exactly an abundance of topics we connected on.
On top of being away from friends, Christmas meant being in the snow and cold weather that I was unaccustomed to. It meant being in a place that was much different from the one I loved. Most Christmases, I found myself asking my parents if we could stay in California so I could dodge the trip and be with my friends where I was comfortable, but I only got them to agree to do Christmas in California a handful of times.
Because of this yearly expedition, Christmas ends up being a holiday of mixed emotions for me. Technically, I was “home,” where I was born, where my family was, where I thought I was supposed to be for the holidays. I was in my home-state and got to see where all my aunts and uncles and parents and grandparents had grown up, and I was with my family and their friends. But for me, Colorado was filled with a feeling of strangeness accompanied by a painful awareness of that strangeness. I was confused; aren’t the holidays supposed to be filled with cheer? I felt like I should have been grateful or enjoying myself more. I often felt guilty for wanting to be home, as I knew being among family in Colorado meant a lot to my parents.
On paper, this was the ideal Christmas. I was traveling to a winter wonderland, surrounded by family and loved ones… but I wasn’t happy. Here’s where Sufjan comes in.
“Did I Make You Cry On Christmas Day?” is important to me because it helped me realize there’s nothing wrong in not being cheerful around Christmas time. In the song, Sufjan is fighting to keep a relationship alive despite the best efforts of the other party to get him to move on to something or someone they view as better. He struggles with the fact that maybe he’s the reason his partner is so unhappy, even if that’s irrational. As the song approaches the end, Sufjan confronts the issue and momentarily slips into violence before revealing that somewhere inside of all the pain, he still has feelings for his partner. After his admission, all the fears from the start of the song seem inconsequential and Sufjan almost offers an apology as the song fades out.
Christmas evokes a lot of emotion, and just like Sufjan, I wondered how much of that mix was my fault. I knew why I wasn’t enjoying myself. I knew where I wanted to be instead. But I still struggled with the idea that it was my fault I wasn’t completely happy during the most wonderful time of the year. Much like Sufjan still reached for his partner, I still tried to embrace enjoyment and cheer. I knew that I still had some joy and excitement for Christmas, being in the snow and giving gifts. Some of those nights did end with my dissociation melting away and feeling like a true Christmas, but those nights were the exceptions for me, not the norm.
“Did I Make You Cry” is cathartic because it helped me come to the realization that not everyone is happy during Christmas time and that I didn’t need to feel guilty for not enjoying my time with my extended family. Sometimes the people and events we are supposed to enjoy don’t do anything for us, and it can be hard to accept that when there’s a lot of external pressure to enjoy whatever that may be. My feelings of wanting to be home and of not enjoying Christmas were valid and Sufjan’s song made me confront that fact. I didn’t need to feel guilty, and I didn’t need to beat myself up for not enjoying the holiday and traditions I thought I was supposed to.