Monday, December 23, 2013

Disgustingly Sentimental Christmas Blog

It is perhaps both typical and telling that my Christmas blog post begins with a recent conversation I had with a psychologist. After all, the holidays are all about families, and if ever a family existed to stun therapists the world over, it’s mine. 

This particular doctor asked me to describe a typical Christmas celebration in my family.

"Typical? Um..."

Now, I actually do feel some pity for the mental health care professionals who deal with me and mine, so I didn’t laugh in his face. Bless the man, I’m sure he was envisioning a large, rowdy get-together with shared jokes and stories and children’s laughter amid bows and ribbons and eggnog. I can’t honestly say I’ve ever actually encountered eggnog in the flesh. It’s always seemed like an exotic myth, like flying reindeer or benevolent carolers who weren’t paid to be there.

Nowadays, Christmas in my home consists of loosely organized wrapping paper carnage first thing in the morning, followed by the requisite pilgrimage to my parents’ house for dinner. There, we eat on fancy plates we’ll have to hand wash, and there will be at least one or two properly strange contributions to the menu. One year when I was very pregnant, it was fresh mint in the green beans, which my sensitive nose did not appreciate. There is no children’s table, so we all participate in one central conversation, which sounds really lively and convivial until you remember who is sitting at the table.

The older generation governs the ebb and flow of conversation. In my case, these wise forebears are my father, mother, aunt, and uncle. For the uninitiated, that’s a Doctor of Inorganic Chemistry and former Director of Technology of a major international corporation; a Doctor of English Literature and former Executive Director for yet another international corporation; the former head of Literature for the area’s most important library and current darling of theater luminaries, who are forever begging her for research and copies of long-forgotten musical scores; and a history scholar who also is something of an expert in oriental rugs and organic fruit for reasons that escape me. Two Republicans and two Democrats. Two Episcopalians and two Roman Catholics.

To say that the dinner conversation is a tad academic would be putting it mildly. 

The evening ends with a frankly bloodthirsty game of Monopoly between my mother and aunt. The rest of us have learned not to interfere. The noncombatants swill glasses of port, nibble ginger cookies, and stare at the fire until a decent interval has passed and we can disperse.

However, this is my father’s side of the family. When I was a child, we spent Christmases with my mother’s family.

"Sing it, Perry!"

Christmas in Kansas was possibly my favorite childhood memory. Granny would make chocolate and peanut butter fudge, my grandfather would smoke his pipe and growl at everyone, my mother would dither, and my father would immerse himself in a crossword puzzle. My cousins and I would dress the Pomeranian in felt dolls’ clothes, hammer at the organ until our elders yelled, and laugh late into the night when my mother’s eyes would bulge with rage and we’d finally settle down. We sometimes wandered down to what was rather optimistically called the park, but was really a stone arch that gave way to a muddy clearing with a couple of large, cement pipes half-embedded in the grass. 

The shed at the back of the house was perfect for exploring, and I remember laughing over my mother’s impossibly pointed shoes from the 1950s and my grandfather’s naughty magazines. 

Do they still make Shrinky Dinks? Those things were pure genius. This was also the era of Star Wars. What 1970s childhood could be complete without a Princess Leia doll with real hair? Of course those gigantic buns didn’t last long, but she was still one of my favorite toys. I had an Uhura doll, too. I know you’re jealous.

The tree was plastic and glorious, the long drape of tinsel falling from star to floor, providing tantalizing peeks at the gaudy World War II era ornaments beneath. Perry Como would be crooning Christmas carols over the eight-track player, and I would scamper out in my prim Muppet Show nightgown with the frill at the ankle and bask in the excitement and anticipation. We children were always well-rested on Christmas morning, thanks to the administration of Granny’s famous hot toddies the night before. In later years, Granny got lazy and would just hand out shots of vodka. All I know is that we never stayed up late on Christmas Eve. 


It’s amazing how many of your childhood experiences can’t be repeated with your own children just because it would land you in jail.

"Keep 'em coming, Granny!"

Anyway, the thing my children have missed out on (other than being knocked out with high-proof liquor) is the large, chaotic family get-together. I suppose I could get melancholy about it, but I think they’re happy with the less social, more sedate celebrations they’ve grown up with. As the only children in the house, and the only grandchildren, they are doted upon and spoiled rotten. I even occasionally catch them paying attention to the debates over the influence of 13th Century monasticism on the development of modern-day politics. They know they are loved and surrounded by the familiar and comforting, and I suppose that is all a child really needs to capture that holiday magic.

The fire starts to die, and the conversation tapers off. The boys watch their great-aunt tuck their dozing mother under a blanket, and they are amused that here, their mother is still a child. Their grandfather magically produces the batteries that weren’t included, while their father mutters over microscopic screws as he assembles the most interesting toy (now that the gouges from the hard plastic packaging have stopped bleeding). Grandmother cackles, malicious glee marking the acquisition of Park Place. Her victim groans, and her rueful laughter becomes part of the tapestry of my children’s memories.

My mother's kingdom.

What we pass on to our children and grandchildren isn’t the tradition. Presents at night or morning, holiday supper or breakfast or tea, midnight mass or sunrise service. None of that matters much. I know that lots of people don’t get those holiday warm fuzzy feelings, and this will sound like sentimental rubbish to them. That’s okay.

I totally respect your opinion.

My point is that, regardless of whether you celebrate Saturnalia, Hanukkah, Christmas, or nothing at all, the rituals that bind a family exist to comfort and reassure.  We are reminded of our connectedness, even as the world changes around us. 

When a new family starts out, new traditions grow out of the disparate backgrounds of both parents. Children grow up and make their own families, with new traditions of their own. What matters most is that we retain that connectedness and honor what has gone before, without allowing it to hold us captive to the past. We let our memories warm and reassure us, taking a deep breath of that fortifying air, and then return to the world for another year.

I don’t know what answer that psychologist was looking for from me. The Christmas of my childhood is long gone, as is that of my husband. I’ve taken the elements from my memories that were the most magical and preserved them for my own children, but by and large, we celebrate in our own way. While I may occasionally feel a sentimental twinge for the way things used to be, I know that we need to embrace the changes in our families to move forward. We can rejoice in some changes, while others break our hearts. At the end of the day, the holidays are for sharing love, memories, solace, and gratitude with each other. That’s the part we need to preserve most of all.

And Perry Como. Gotta preserve the Perry.


Anonymous said...

As always, you've given us a unique perspective.

Thanks for sharing your lovely Christmas ritual. It's not the tradition that is important but the feeling of connectivity.

Merry Christmas!

busymommy said...

As someone who is an avowed "slave to tradition" I realized, reading your post, that while many of the things I loved best about my childhood Christmases I've tried hard to preserve, the ones that matter most to my kids are the ones we've created together. It's that connection, as you so eloquently expressed.

Merry Christmas to you and yours, my friend.