and needing permission for joy.
“I’m thinking about getting a Christmas tree,” my sister tells me on FaceTime before Thanksgiving. She says it in a guilty whisper. I tell her it’s a good idea. “You have to get one at some point,” I say, though I know it’s not that easy.
The restoration of holiday cheer in the five years since our brother passed has been slow and deliberate, as well as forced. When I made my way home to Brooklyn after his funeral, it was still October but I heard a choir singing “Come Thou Font of Every Blessing” and took it as a sign: It’s ok to enjoy Christmas, something I didn’t realize I was worried about and also the kind of irrational thought one has in the throes of full grief. Still, I didn’t have a tree until 2019, three years after he died, when I had moved in with Israel, someone who loves the holiday as much as I do, who eats the cookies shaped like a gingerbread man first and has at least three Christmas print button-downs.
Brian loved Christmas as much as he was allowed to express. He loved colored lights while my mom preferred a more classy white, so for years we would have one real tree and one fake, strung up with those big outdoor bulbs. We raced to the tree on Christmas morning until we were too old to get up so early, our excitement replaced by Cameron shaking us awake in our beds. Christmas 2001 was especially good, when I got a purple Sony Discman and he got a PS2. The last photo of our family together before my parents’ divorce is us all in front of the newly decorated tree in 2009. After the timer went off, he ran out to meet his girlfriend and said, “I’ll see it on the blog,” meaning my Tumblr at the time. Little changes, while everything does.
Since he’s been gone, it’s felt like sacrilege to enjoy the season, but I have accepted that everything important and many things that aren’t will make me cry for him, like my sister and I arguing in the car on the way to my wedding, this important day making us feel especially out of balance without our fulcrum, the one who understood us both best and whose absence makes the rest of our lives a tug of war. A tug of love, too. What would he have worn, how would he have behaved? Would he be ok by now? Would we have fixed it?
My mom now does funny things to decorate, like sticks in a tall clear vase that have been painted white and wrapped with twinkle lights—very Tim Burton, very Moira Rose.
Christmas keeps coming no matter what happens in our lives, and ongoing grief, the ghosts at our tables, will always be there. Finding joy in it can honor them, too, as bad as it can feel to rip the bandage off, to stop nursing the wound so preciously. I’m crying as I write this.
I start listening to Christmas music early in November and sometimes in late October, an homage to the time the choir was singing down the street, bringing me home after the worst days of my life. It still helps to just start Christmas on the anniversary of his passing, to force hope instead of sinking into darkness. When I’m in New York, I’ll go to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and light a candle for Brian, as I always do. I count a specific number of rows up and over, a secret I can feel we still have. Once, afterwards, I passed Sufjan Stevens on the street—another sign that he was looking out.
What will this year be like? I’ve gotten no signs. I just turn on the lights, wrap the presents, bake the cookies. The holidays keep coming, no matter who’s now gone, forcing us to get on with life, reminding us it’s not all bad.
This Friday’s paid subscriber recipe will be a gingerbread cake, with two ideas for decorating. I’ll also be sending along a PDF with all the recipes from this year.
It will be the last email of 2021, and the newsletter will return with a slight aesthetic and scheduling adjustment in 2022. (Spoiler: Weekly paid subscriber cooking missives and a podcast with transcript for all.)
A lot of book stuff!!! Next year, I’ll send some reading lists out.
You absolutely 100 percent must cook Eric Kim’s gochujang-glazed eggplant. My advice is to double the sauce and also put it on some pan-fried tofu! Above are vanilla shortbread cookies decorated with aquafaba royal icing.