Christmas after Cancer

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology Social Work

DECEMBER 24, 2018

How has cancer changed your holidays?

Although I am writing this in advance of Christmas, it is easy to imagine you reading it on or very near to the holiday. As is true for all special moments after cancer, Christmas is especially precious. Our cancer experience makes us all acutely aware of the details and pleasures of our lives, and those are even greater during the holiday season.

No matter which holiday tradition you observe, celebrations kindle a bittersweet awareness that time passes and we don't know what the future may hold. While we try to reassure ourselves of the likelihood of ongoing good health, we know there are no promises. We must be fully present in our days and fully appreciate our times of happiness. I also think that the experience of a serious illness makes us all more pensive. Whether you call it life review or just memories, we inevitably think about our past.

My holiday memories center around Christmas. Many of our annual activities are traditions, so, as we bake cookies or write cards or haul in the Christmas tree, we remember past years and people whom we have loved. As I write this, I am smiling about the “cookie” part. My mother was a very reluctant cook, and that was especially apparent at Christmas. I loved to go to friends’ houses where their mothers were baking and decorating sugar cookies, and I remember coming home and asking why we could not do the same. I don’t remember exactly what my mom said, but she must have handled it well, because I did not feel remorseful for asking or sad that we weren’t baking together. Probably she quickly turned the conversation to some of the things that we did share, and I happily turned to music or books or storytelling.

Her reluctant cooking continued over the holiday. We always decorated the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve (maybe that was a strategy to keep over-excited children occupied, but I can’t imagine how my parents fit that big job into a always packed day), and went to an early family church service. Dinner had to fit in somewhere, and she had no qualms about serving up canned spaghetti. Even when we were older and went to a midnight service, dinner wasn’t much better.

My own traditions have been completely different, probably a typical example of trying to do or be the opposite of one’s mother. We have always hosted a Christmas Eve dinner, making it as elegant and delicious and festive as possible. For a long time, we sat around the table with family and friends (and I especially recall the year that the Christmas ball, hanging from the chandelier, fell directly into a small guest’s soup). As the party grew, we could not fit at the table or into the dining room. We now fill the whole house with family and friends, many who come each year and always a few new people. The food is bountiful and delicious, and the wine flows freely.

Our town has a tradition of gathering for carols around the tree in the Town Center at 7:15. Depending on the weather, there are a few hundred or many hundreds of people there—babies and dogs wearing reindeer antlers and many wide-eyed children. We sing joyfully and off-key and haphazardly and conclude with “Silent Night”. Then we return home to keep eating and rejoin the guests who preferred to stay with the food and drink. My dear friend, Vivienne, makes gingerbread houses each year, and, after dinner, the small children sit on blankets and are handed plastic hammers. With gusto, they destroy and eat the gingerbread. The children who have really outgrown this activity generally need to “help” the smaller ones. I stand and remember my daughters whacking away at the houses and now I watch their daughters doing the same.

This year, our whole family and many friends will be here. I will be grateful and joyful and sad as I think of those no longer with us—and will be sending all best hopes to us all, after cancer, that we cherish and love our lives.

Merry Christmas.

How has cancer affected your holiday experiences? Share your stories in the BIDMC Cancer Community.