It is, unbelievably, Christmas time again. I’m not really sure how we got here so soon, but sure enough, here we are. I do not have a single Christmas decoration up at home, and I’ve hardly bought a single Christmas present. Those that I have bought are not wrapped yet. I’m hoping for some serious elfish intervention on the wrapping part.
When my kids were little, Christmas was a pretty simple affair at our house. They each got one article of clothing, something fun, and a stocking stuffed to the brim with toys and candy. It entertained me greatly to make sure that each stocking had at least one pair of underwear to counterbalance the frivolity of the rest of the gifts. Christmas in those years was fun but understated.
After their step-father entered the picture, things shifted for my daughters. Christmas was a lavish, expensive affair during the years he was in the family. Every year I would announce that we were going to return to the old gift giving standard, and every year he would run up the cost and the number of presents. I am embarrassed to tell you that for years I spent around $300-400 on ornaments, about $750-1000 on each of the girls and about the same on him. Please note: he kept upping the ante and I kept being the one that paid for the majority of it. We were living on two incomes and we could technically afford these extravaganzas, but they never felt comfortable to me. I always worried about the standard we were setting for the kids.
The true indulgence though happened when we arrived at my parent’s home every Christmas afternoon. Their extremely large tree had presents overflowing in every direction. There were always at least three TV trays set around the room with every hors d’oeuvres you can imagine. There would be two large punch bowls filled with eggnog; one “leaded,” one without. I personally felt strongly that since I had not had a sober Christmas since my mother married my step-father when I was 15 there was no good reason to change that tradition.
As adults my daughters and nieces have regaled us with the stories of their younger selves all daring each other to eat the “stinkiest” hors d’oeuvres. It was similar to a game of “truth or dare.” I am amazed that none of the adults noticed this annual game, but in our defense, there was a LOT of rum in the “leaded” eggnog we were drinking.
After everyone had filled up on the snacks and the eggnog the children would be sent to the tree to hand out presents to everyone. My mother was meticulous about making sure everyone had the same number of presents and that the dollar value added up to the same amount for everyone. As a result, by the time the presents were all handed out, there were stacks of presents sitting next to each individual.
We then would start the process of taking turns opening our presents one by one. The tradition was to start with the youngest and work our way up by birth order. Given the size of our family and the number of gifts, it would literally take hours for everyone to open all their presents. When we were finally done with the present opening, we would all sit down at multiple tables to enjoy a large meal.
When the granddaughters grew old enough to start bringing their future husbands to the holiday the reactions of these poor men was entertaining and eye opening. For the first time, each of the girls saw our Christmas traditions through the eyes of someone new to the process. To say that this was a whole different level of celebrating would be an understatement. Each of the young men was welcomed and brought into the circle of gift opening without anyone batting an eye.
As each of my girls left home and got married, the only request I made to them was for them to be at Grandma’s for Christmas afternoon. I didn’t ask for any of the other holidays and I didn’t ask for any of them to have Christmas morning with me. I wanted them to focus on the part of the holiday that meant the most to their grandparents and me.
Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever. As my parents aged the day became more and more draining on them. Christmas dinner became a potluck and the number of tables needed for the hors d’oeuvres diminished. Eventually, my step-father was moved to a nursing home and the next year Mom moved into a small apartment in a senior living complex. The era of lavish gift giving came to a quiet close.
Sometime during that progress my daughters and I stopped buying presents for each other and adopted a family together each year instead. Even later, as the girls became mothers and they could no longer afford even that in their budgets, we quit doing that as a family. We all just started making what donations we could on our own. We’d all meet at one of our houses so all of my grandchildren could open their gifts together. We’d have a modest meal (usually home-made lasagna,) and play a few games.
This year is going to be even more modest. Mom passed away on December 12th and there is no one in the family over the age of 20 who is even mildly interested in celebrating the holiday. We will, of course still do our best. There will be presents for the grandchildren and there will be food cooked and consumed. I’m sure there will be stories and laughter, but I’m also sure there will be tears as we remember the almost absurd over-consumption of Christmases past.
But Christmas is bigger than that. Christmas is about love, laughter and the making of memories. Whether you are having a traditional celebration or you are dealing with a new reality, I wish you and yours a Merry Christmas, a Happy Kwanza, a Happy Hanukkah, a joyful Festivus or any other holiday you choose to celebrate.
“And so happy Christmas
For black and for white
For yellow and red ones
Let’s stop all the fight”
Happy Xmas (War Is Over), John Lennon , 1971