It’s a cold, snowy Christmas season at home, and I’m thinking about quiet December evenings years ago—after the rush of Christmas shopping, gift-wrapping, one last bedtime story for excited children—alone with the lit Christmas tree, winter darkness pressing against the windows, the smell of fresh-cut balsam, the murmur of the wind. Or perhaps the roar of a blizzard.
For most of my life, the Christmas season occupied a month-long position of prominence in the annual cycle of celebrations and obligations. As a child, of course, it was a time of magic which gradually morphed into an awkward cross between greed and good will. Our family purported to simplicity, but that was never evident under the Christmas tree. And despite the religious underpinnings to the holiday, in my mostly-secular family Baby Jesus always played second fiddle to Santa Claus in our holiday festivities.
The first Christmas I spent away from my family was also my first Christmas as a married woman. I was all of twenty-one. I don’t remember now why we decided to spend the holiday alone in our upstairs apartment in Michigan while our families celebrated in Connecticut and Pennsylvania, but that’s what we did. We bought a Christmas tree and ornaments and I baked Christmas cookies. Did I cook a turkey? I don’t remember that, either, but I doubt it. What I do remember is that when the box of gifts arrived from Jack’s mother a week before Christmas, we dug right in like a couple of unruly toddlers, leaving little suspense and a vague sense of shame for Christmas morning.
Within a couple of years, we had a child of our own, and began to establish our own traditions. Decorating the house on December 1. Setting up the crèche. Baking cookies, Christmas cake, gingerbread houses. Community carol sing. Cutting and decorating the Christmas tree. Fondue on Christmas eve. Hanging stockings and reading The Night Before Christmas at bedtime. The Hallelujah Chorus full blast to welcome Christmas morning—well before daybreak. Muffins and oranges in the stockings, to be eaten before candy. And gifts. Always too many gifts. Christmas dinner. And then, the gradual wind-down and a full return to normal on January 1, when we took down the tree and put away the decorations.
There you have it. And while I maintained, even enjoyed, these traditions for decades, enthusiasm gave way to pretense sometime in the 1990s. The excitement began to feel more like frenzy, the rituals empty. The gift-shopping and the meal preparation became chores to tick off a list. Balancing the gift-giving among children, and then grandchildren, became an exercise in higher mathematics. I began to sound, and feel, more and more like Scrooge. Bah humbug. Here we go again.
Finally our sensible adult children put a stop to much of the nonsense. They established rules to simplify the gifting, and they started taking charge of the holiday in their own homes on alternate years. But then—just as the youngest family of grandchildren began arriving on the scene—we started absenting ourselves more years than not. This year, for the third time in four years, we’re celebrating the holiday in our Guanajuato home. Before that, we spent it on the road a couple of times, en route to Mexico. (In case you’re ever tempted to consider it, Christmas in a Super 8 is really not Christmas at all.)
After a significant hiatus from the seasonal frenzy, I see some signs that I may be over my humbug phase. A few days ago, I strung a few lights through a lemon tree. I put some cedar clippings on a small tray and added a handful of pine cones and a few red balls to decorate the coffee table. I arranged a couple of poinsettias beside the door to welcome anyone who might drop by. We will spend Christmas Eve with good Mexican friends, Boxing Day with a gathering of ex-pats. Christmas Day itself, here in Mexico, is a quiet day for religious celebrations or recovery from the previous night’s revelry (neither of which is likely to apply here!).
This will all be pleasant, but for the first time in awhile, I’m missing my old Christmases. Next year, I want to watch the grandchildren open their stockings, build a snowman with them in the back yard, and grab a few quiet moments alone by the Christmas tree.
Wherever you are and however you celebrate, have a wonderful holiday season!