Christmas doesn’t have to be merry. It just doesn’t. It can be annoying or sad or irksome or just a plain colossal mess of forced gaiety the likes of which no other holiday spurts forth. It depends a lot on your current lot in life, your attitude, your temperament real or imagined, your patience, your perspective, your relatives and your dead. There is no Christmas cookie cutter one-size fits all mood that anyone should be required to don at this particular time of the year. The half naked Christmas tree sitting in my living room for the better part of a week will attest to my less than festive mood this year. Don’t be afraid of your Christmasless feelings. As I said this week to a friend stopped by, “You can see by the lack of Christmas decorations that there is no husband nor daughters who reside here.” And that’s just fine with me right now, both the lack of the former and the latter.
Christmas, like it or not, belongs to children. It is through their eyes of wonder and belief that the spirit rekindles in adults. O there are those childless adults, whether by want or circumstance, who manage to keep the magic for all their lives intact with a continuity not affected by the changes of offspring and steered by the lifelong habit of no Christmas transitions in their lives. My view, however, is through the prism of parenthood. It wasn’t always. I disliked Christmas in my teens and for a long time after. Longtime family quarrel ended the time with the paternal family closest to us. Maternal side was oceans away. The first breaking away from the entire holiday time spent with my immediate family to share some part of the holiday with a boyfriend’s, fiancé’s, eventual husband’s family was not always easy or particularly merry either. It took my children to truly reignite the proverbial Yule log of my heart. I wanted to give them the best and brightest and the most present-laden holiday I could possibly muster. And I most certainly went over board many a year with them in that department.
In the early days we would alternate our Christmases between the grandparents, as many families are want to do. Harder though for us who don’t live near either set to pull off a proper Christmas for our kids in someone else’s home and state, for that matter. It was Christmas in New York one year with my family and Sacramento the next with his. I was a fond and fiendish customer of online shopping from its inception, looked at with fear by those who could not understand me actually giving my credit card information to the Internet. I had devised a system for my older son during these first gypsy Christmases of flying here and driving there. I would order it all online from Toys R Us. I would have it delivered to our current Christmas destination, see what he liked on Christmas Day, return it all on December 26 before leaving for home and then rebuy the ones he liked the best upon our arrival back in Los Angeles. This kept the schlepping of stuff through airports and freeways to a minimum. Looking at old photographs he has wondered why a particular present in the picture on Christmas morn ceased to be in the picture of his memory any time thereafter.
In later years and with another child in tow, I shifted the California Christmases south as it was easier for the childless adult relatives to travel than I with kids and also since the gifts got bigger. I loved those Christmases at my home. But did I really show it at the time or did the disturbance of the image of parental perfection keep me from allowing my boys to put the ornaments on the tree willy-nilly? Was the fear of my unhappiness colored by the fear of breaking ornaments? Did I bark orders rather than extend kind smiles? Was the stress of making sure my kids’ Christmases were perfect detonating the success of it all? I don’t know. I have a don’t ask; don’t tell policy on all that. Eventually, we cut out the New York Christmases altogether. The gaggle of grandkids increased. The maintenance of present equality no more easily maintained. It was just too difficult as the rearing of sibling rivalry’s less than pretty head increased each year. Best to keep the Christmas competition distance, I thought. I often wondered what life would be life if Christmas were just another day that a family got together for, automatically as families who live in close proximity often do. Perhaps one day I shall know that with my own sons, but familial histories do repeat themselves despite our best intentions. What we know, good or bad, is what we do, like it or not. It takes a sea change of courage to change the course of one’s disposition.
The children grow up and grow out of the Christmases you know. With late teenagers and young adults there is this nether land of holiday. Couple that with a recent divorce and it amplifies the state. Add in a dash of family quarrel and the recipe for Christmas is no longer as sweet as those past. Kids at this age, or at least mine, are somewhat into Christmas and somewhat not. It takes the forging of new relationships with girlfriends, fiancés and eventually wives to invent new Christmases. The transition period is most difficult, I think. As example, I am a firm believer in the Christmas tree as a living thing and did the lonely, childless schlepp to the lot and dragged the damn thing home atop my car, tied there by a few pubescent relatives of the owner, judging by their less than confident countenances as they tied the knots. I had no cause to be assured the tree would survive the trip. It does and I do and I ask the older son to take it off the car and bring it in, only to be met by “why don’t we have a fake tree?” The withering look I gave him was worthy of any post holiday withering tree. And this tree, as if it knew exactly what my state of spirit was, leaned quite a bit into the wall. I never had a crooked tree in my time of being at the helm of the family Christmas. I could not believe the tilt and so I called the lot and asked the owner to come fix the darn thing. He did and he didn’t. A social media post and a friend suggestion of a name for the poor dear and so Ilean the Leaning Tower of Christmas tree was christened. A fitting fit to my less than fitting spirit. Three days gone by and Ilean, still lit and naked, crookedly stands. Although this state is one many of us aspire to from time to time, I suspect. We do have a new ornament now adorning her, brought by said naming friend who visited last night. It is half elf -half Santa, the most appropriate of the transornaments, washing the hair of a hare. Nothing quite screams Christmas like the shampooing of a rabbit’s head. A short lull in my action a few days later, saw the accompaniment of more ornaments to the Santa Elf’s delight. With each one, a fond and distant memory floats; a memory we do not know we are making when first we hang that ornament. From my mother, Nonna Alda, there hangs the yearly Hallmark offering and from me, the silver and gold of Things Remembered.
This tree seeking effort all took place after I suggested to younger son, that perhaps this year we should start a new tradition of a New Year’s tree and presents opened under such on New Year’s day. Rather than traipse the lots of trees and spend a king’s ransom on one, we can simply await the days after Christmas when there will be a bounty of selections on the various curbs around our house to choose from. He looked at me with eyes so rolled and brows so raised that formed the thought; my real mother must be around here somewhere!
The lighting of the lights was another path to Christmases gone by and I tread lightly with this one to keep the forced gaiety from lighting us up this year. A task always done by husband and shared with younger son was not something I wanted to command my son to continue. I love twinkly lights. So does he. But I have no way of truly gauging what the memory of this will conjure up in his heart and mind this second Christmas going it alone. I left it strictly up to him this year and conveyed my peace with light or dark and left the decision to him rather than issue an edict that there must be Christmas lights or else. He chose the lights, my boy, and contrarian spirit that he is and the definition of reverse psychology itself, he adorned our yard with more lights than we had ever seen in previous days.
I try to keep the apathy at bay as best I can on days the apathy does come. Society says no sadness allowed on Christmas day or thereabouts. No melancholy wonder at where one’s journey took them in the past year. No dwelling on people no longer here. No dwelling on those that are but wearing different cloaks. No wondering where you will be next Christmas. No wondering who you will be next Christmas. A jaunt through a jumble of memories past and a march through the holiday present is all I can muster this year at times. But as the holiday nears and the ornaments now shimmer on Ilean’s leaning branches, the spirit rekindles and by Christmas Eve, the eggnog will be flowing, the gifts wrapped and ready for the morn, the melancholy will dissipate among the pleasure, the pageantry and the purpose of it all. I don’t do sadness well nor long and that is a gift I now treasure. And so from merriless to Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.