My daughter went out to the woods behind our house today, cut down a Christmas tree and dragged it inside. I feel just a little bit like the world’s worst parent. You see, I don’t do Christmas. I mostly try to pretend it doesn’t exist, to make it into just another day. I’ve never really thought about why I do that — if someone asks, I usually just shrug and tell them the truth – I don’t consider myself Christian so it doesn’t seem appropriate to celebrate something that I don’t believe in. (No letters and emails please — I’m quite comfortable with my personal beliefs). But it’s not about religion, it’s so much more than that. Layers of each and every Christmas past really do haunt our emotions even if we don’t acknowledge or even realize it.
My daughter brings out the box of ornaments from the attic. Most are crushed and broken due to careless mishandling over the years. She only hangs a few and I ask why. Because the rest are too old and dated. My daughter is on the autism spectrum. I have tried to explain the significance of family treasures over the years, but she hasn’t grasped their emotional meanings. Showing her an ornament crafted out of a walnut and a cotton ball and construction paper — a santa — my mother’s handwriting on back “1970”. I tell her that I made the ornament when I was four and Grandma (who died six years ago) had written the date. She looks and shrugs and tosses it back in the box. It’s not glitzy enough for her tree.
When you are an only child with no one to pass on those stories, who will remember?
I am an only child.
My own Christmas memories are bittersweet. The first memory that I can remember is my father scolding me while setting up the tree because I dropped a glass ornament and it shattered. He is a good person. It was my first Christmas being his daughter. I was newly adopted and he was a new father and we were testing boundaries. (We still are). I remember crying, not knowing what I had done wrong. I remember that he later came back and decorated the tree with me. I imagine my mother must have talked to him and sent him back in to help me.
Just a year before I had been living in my foster home. I don’t remember it, I was too small, but not long after Christmas, just when the holiday break was over and the older kids had gone back to school, I was taken and placed with my new parents. It was the 1960’s. There was no transition counseling or visitations with the family that I knew as my own. One day I was the youngest of six children playing with my Christmas toys, the next day I was an only child in a strange house with new toys and new parents. Out of sight, out of mind becomes a pretty good coping mechanism that has been used over and over throughout my life, and not just at Christmas time.
Christmas didn’t come naturally to my father either. He was raised by his widower father during the Great Depression and I know there was little in the way of any sort of extravagance and celebration throughout his childhood. His father worked seven days a week, only taking a few hours off each Sunday for Mass and Sunday dinner. I imagine Christmas celebrations for his family were subdued if they happened at all. My father never talked about it.
During my growing up, Christmas was about as little fuss my father thought he could get away with – a real tree was too messy, a fire in the fireplace was a waste of heating oil and money. Although my mother was the gift buyer, the few gifts that my father would buy (mostly gifts for my mother) were unwrapped and practical (think toothpaste and deodorant).
My mother was the spirit of the holidays in our house. She would decorate and bake cookies. Although she wouldn’t admit it, I think she challenged herself every year to try to out-bake our German neighbor, who, every Christmas, would bake about a dozen different varieties of beautiful cookies – looking perfect enough for the cover of Bon Appetit magazine. My mother’s creations were a sorry lot in comparison — usually the basic sugar, bourbon balls, chocolate chip. She would bring down the old tins from the attic, dented and rusty around the edges, and carefully cut circles of wax paper to separate the layers. Then she would slice an apple to add to each tin – an old wives tale to absorb moisture. She would store them in the stairwell to the attic to keep them cool. I remember that after a few days, all of the cookies would begin to taste like apples.
I remember one December walking through Bradlees with my mother and she impulsively stopped and browsed the holiday records. She finally picked one out and purchased it — one of the very few impulse buys I ever remember my mother making. I was browsing at our dump swap shop the other day and found the same record – Andre Kostelanetz. Not really my taste, but it instantly put me back to that exact day, that exact spot at that aisle in Bradlees.
So why don’t I celebrate Christmas? Because I don’t believe? No, I don’t think that’s it. I think that celebrating Christmas has surpassed Christianity. I don’t think that you need to believe in the birth of Jesus to celebrate the Christmas holiday. If you believe in miracles, in compassion, in peace on earth, I think you’re good to go.
I think that maybe I don’t celebrate Christmas because if I celebrate, I have to acknowledge the memories. Those precious few moments are all I have of my childhood Christmases, my family Christmases. It is just my father and me now and he is in his 90’s. Soon there will be no one else to remember — to remember my father and me decorating the tree. My frugal mother impulsively buying a Christmas record. Dancing round and round the living room to the Nutcracker. Bringing my pillows and hiding behind the easy chair and listening to my mother and her sisters gossip over coffee, My aunt Mary singing out my name. Coming home from Christmas dinner at an Aunt’s house on Christmas night after all of the celebrations were finished and when all was quiet and sitting in the living room alone. The tree lights are lit. I am gazing out the window at the sky -at either snowflakes or stars and I’m wondering what the sky looks like in Bethlehem. Those are my memories.