I’m sitting in my home office avoiding doing work that currently has me stumped and staring out the window on a typical November day – gray sky, a few snow flurries – and thinking of all the stuff I have to do to get ready for Christmas.
I have a love/hate relationship with Christmas. (No disrespect intended to people who have another holiday in December. It’s Christmas for me.) I love how Christmas brings me images, sounds, smells… Christmas will always be tied up with Christmases past. I hate how much work is involved in getting ready.
My strongest images of Christmas as a child are my sister and me on Christmas eve, dressed in matching red velveteen dresses my mother sewed for us. My tall, handsome dad singing an off key version of Good King Wenceslas. Waking up to the Christmas stockings hung on the end of the bed to keep us busy till my parents were ready to get up (always an orange, an apple, a quarter, a comic book, sox or underwear, a bit of candy and a small toy). I can still imagine the rough texture of the brown loop rug on our living room floor as we scrambled to find our presents. And sometimes I think I get a whiff of the cigarette smoke and booze, strong coffee and Nana’s baking when we went to her tiny doll’s house for Christmas night. When I step outside on a cold December night, I’m reminded of the cold, dry Northern Ontario winter air that made the inside of your nose hurt. And of gazing up at the winter night sky on Christmas night, mesmerized by the stars and the northern lights, as my dad carried sleepy kids to the car to head home. That’s the good stuff. The not-so-good was the heavy drinking that often meant my mother was left to herding drunks in and out of the house on Christmas eve and trying to be the diplomat when arguments broke out. They always did. There were some things I was determined not to repeat when I had my own children.
When I moved out and began building my own life, I carried some of my family traditions with me. Opening one present – just one! – on Christmas Eve. Stockings hung on the end of the bed (an orange, an apple, a dollar – inflation, comics, sox, underwear, and a few small toys). My mother’s marzipan tarts and Nana’s shortbread. When my kids were small, I wanted Christmas to be magic. I don’t know how well I succeeded. I guess you’d have to ask them. I do know that for several years, my first husband and I were so determined to make Christmas special that we went overboard on gifts. Stuff they didn’t need. Stuff they didn’t always want. So much stuff.
Now that my kids are adults and I share my life with my husband of two years, Christmas has evolved again. In mid-December, we put up the tree. We have a real tree. Fake isn’t optional. We put on Christmas music, drink hot chocolate and bring out the decorations. Each year, I carefully unwrap the tissue that protects each ornament. They all tell a story. There are the ornaments my kids made when they were little, ornaments purchased on my travels, ornaments I bought when my first husband and I split and I had to start over. It always amazes me how much of my story is represented in a box of Christmas baubles. Tree day is a quiet one that spills over into the evening, filled with nostalgia and satisfaction. The best is when the tree is done and we sit together on the sofa with only the tree lights and a few candles glowing and a fire burning.
On Christmas eve, the chaos begins. We have five adult kids, their partners, four grandkids, two grandmas, and a grandma’s boyfriend coming for the big turkey dinner. (my version of the Partridge and Pear tree?) It’s also my husband’s birthday. By the time the dinner rolls around, the Christmas cards will be mailed, my house will be decorated, the tree will be up, the baking will be ready, the gifts will be under the tree and I will be – exhausted. My friends keep saying I should do less, cut back, do pot luck. And I try. I really do. But we have to have the tree. We have to have the garland down the stairs. We have to have the garland over the fireplace. We have to have other decorations around the house that are tradition. We have to have the baking that includes my mother’s marzipan tarts and Nana’s shortbread. We have to have carefully-filled stockings for the people who will wake up in the house on Christmas morning. And we have to have a full turkey dinner. And at least one present for everyone, usually two. Once again, stuff. Not as much stuff per person but more stuff for more people.
Is it worth it? When I look around the house on Christmas morning, when the kids and grandkids have left, when the presents have been opened, and I’m sipping my champagne and orange juice, I will take a deep breath. I will see the aftermath of the chaos of opening presents. I will be grateful that I’ve spent another Christmas with my mother. I will smell the Christmas tree and the scented candles and the sweetness of Christmas baking. I will feel the lingering energy and love of a large and boisterous family. And I will feel blessed.
Now, I just have to keep reminding myself of all that since the damn thing is looming right in front of me and I haven’t even started getting ready.