This is the first post in a series about the Christmas season. I totally get that we haven’t gathered around the Thanksgiving table yet, so if you want to stop reading now and come back on November 28, no offense taken. I also know that if you are a parent, you are already looking ahead to Christmas because you have A. LOT. TO. DO. If that's the case, please, read on.
I have seven kids. I get a lot of questions about that, especially during the holidays. Most people want to know how I can possibly get all the shopping done. I start early. But there is another reason that I start early. I love Christmas. But five or six years ago, I had begun to dread Christmas. It was all about the presents. It was all about everyone else’s schedule and agenda. It didn’t look anything like the Christmas that I grew up with. I really loved that Christmas.
Let me back up a little. My husband and I come from very different Christmas traditions. His Christmas memories were of packing up the car the minute that the family festivities ended to ski at a different hill every year. He remembers getting a Christmas tree at the last minute, sometimes on Christmas Eve, then chucking it outside on Christmas Day as the family took off for the mountain. My mother-in-law may challenge this memory, but there it is. This is what my husband thinks of when he thinks of Christmas. He never mentions gifts when he talks about his childhood Christmases. I’m sure he received them, but I’m also sure that gifts were never the center of the action. As long as I’ve known Rob’s family, they have always been about experiences over gifts.
My Christmas memories involve over the top decorating and cooking and presents in every corner. As children, my brother and I each had our own (small) Christmas trees in our rooms in addition to the family tree in the living room. We did not spend Christmas at our own house but instead went to my grandparents’ house in Louisiana as soon as school was out. Granny was the Queen of Christmas (actually, she still is – she’s had her Christmas tree up in her living room year round for the last ten years or so). She decorated every corner of her house. There were cookies and homemade treats stashed all over the house – gifts from neighbors and friends and patients of my grandfather. At night, we took turns wrapping gifts until late at night. You can only imagine how much wrapping took place with seven kids, their spouses, and all of us grandchildren. On Christmas Eve, we would go to Mass, then light a fire in my Grandparents’ fireplace (with the AC blasting – this was Louisiana, after all). We listened to all the classic Christmas records at full blast for days before Christmas and all day on Christmas Day.
When my brother and I were young, we would begin Christmas Day with stockings and gifts from Santa. My mom must have spent hours Christmas shopping and even when I was young and she was on a grad student on a budget, she managed to give us perfect gifts every year. We would eat biscuits for breakfast while my aunts gathered in the kitchen to help my grandmother prepare Christmas dinner. Baked ham, turkey, Mrs. Moore's roast beef, oyster dressing, eggplant and shrimp casserole, wild rice, green salad, fruit salad, sweet potatoes, broccoli cheese casserole, fresh rolls, and cranberry jelly. Sometime during the cooking, we would take a break and go to the living room to open gifts. We always tried to eat dinner around lunch time but typically didn’t sit down until after 2. After dinner, everyone would take a nap and I would go to my dad’s house to do it all over again.
The fact that Rob and I had different Christmas traditions initially caused a little strain over the holidays. I didn’t realize for a long time that I was trying to recreate what my grandmother did for us. I also didn’t realize how much work she put into making Christmas magical for my family. The first Christmas that I spent with Rob’s family, we had Christmas dinner in a restaurant. I didn’t even know restaurants were open on Christmas. I have never been so homesick.
Rob and I had one other complication, of course, and that was that our kids only spent Christmas Day with us every other year. This meant that there were some years that Christmas Day was unbearably silent. We tried to force “Christmas-y” activities into the weekends that we spent with the kids before Christmas to stretch the season. But the kids were getting too old to visit Santa and their interests were turning (age appropriately) away from family activities and toward stuff. I started to dread Christmas. I no longer knew what to get the kids, I didn’t ski so was often alone on Christmas day, and it seemed like the kids didn’t even notice what they were given or by whom. The one thing that I insisted on was Christmas dinner. I blocked it out like I was a mother bear protecting her baby. I didn’t even enjoy it. I was mostly cooking by myself or putting my husband in the awful position of having to forgo skiing with his kids on Christmas day. But damn it, we were going to have a homemade meal for Christmas.
Slowly, our Christmas dinners became a tradition of their own. They became fun. The kids each picked out dishes that they helped to make. They began to expect that we would be having a huge meal with extended family at our house and would talk about what they wanted to contribute to that meal for weeks before Christmas. The kids also looked forward to a secret gift exchange with their cousins on Christmas night. They began to watch each other open gifts in their stockings that were silly and special and practical and fun. They laughed as they sat around for over an hour, slowly savoring their stockings. They looked forward to skiing after opening their stockings and their dad went with them.
Our non-stuff traditions have come on slowly. We introduced an advent calendar with simple activities. We committed to family dinner on a Sunday night in early December after which we decorate the tree, together. We adopted an elf. We began incorporating a canned food drive into our advent. This year, we are cutting out extra gifts, focusing only on our stockings (and a few little things from Santa for the youngest members of the family).
Over the next few weeks, I’d like to introduce you to a few of our Christmas traditions that are not about stuff. I am excited about Christmas once again. I hope you will be too.