One of the problems about Thanksgiving is that it isn't even over before people are preparing for Christmas. Driving home from my Thanksgiving dinner, there was already Christmas music playing - even on the radio station I had been so excited in the morning which had been advertising that they would WAIT until this holiday was over before beginning the next one. Mostly I listened to a book on CD, then, while driving home to avoid the songs about Mommy kissing Santa Claus.
Christmas.. well.. it has mixed memories for me. I do remember being a kid and being excited to get up in the morning and see what was under the tree. We were allowed to attack the stocking before the adults got up, but nothing else. Not that we didn't manhandle the presents and try to figure them out.
Stockings had a formula. There was always an orange or an apple at the bottom plumping the toe of the stocking and weighting it down. Then there were a lot of Hershey's kisses and other candy, because our upcoming breakfast of Grammy's cookies wasn't going to be enough sugar. I never ate the fruit. Never. Not even a day or two later. It always went back into the fridge, and who knows who ultimately ate it or if it were tossed. I'm actually not a fan of Hershey's Kisses, either (I know it's sacrilege, don't tell "Santa").
But then there would be a small gift. I don't know what they were when I was really young - I don't remember them - but in the last few years that we *did* celebrate Christmas, my mother had begun giving me, at least, old toys of hers. I remember one year a particular 3D wood jigsaw, that I enjoyed taking apart and figuring out how to put back together again. I always enjoyed those gifts. Usually there would be a note with them explaining where they'd come from. This was clearly AFTER we had stopped believing in Santa.
We weren't allowed to wake the adults. My parents were smart. But they didn't sleep in too late, either. Everyone was usually in the living room around the tree by 7:30 AM. Sleepy parents, and if we were lucky, grandparents were there, too. We opened one gift at a time, taking turns. Mom, usually, would sit by the tree and select which presents went to whom, and my brother or I would be "Santa" delivering them from her lazily (I understand now) sitting by the tree to whomever they belonged.
Breakfast would always be Grammy's cookies - she would bring tins of them that would last a few days. As an older adult, receiving those tins either by mail, or to take home in person, were always the highlight of my Christmas, and I admit, what I miss most. Others, sometimes, make cookies similar to hers, and each year I flock to them and savor them and think of her.
We would be done with the frenzy within a few hours. Who knows - it might have only been 30 minutes, but it seemed like hours - good hours - to me. And then there was always the difficult moment of deciding what to play with first.
Now, if my mother had been smart, and had the patience of a saint (she is smart, she is not patient), she would have made my brother and I sit down that afternoon and write Thank You notes. She would have made THAT part of the tradition. If I were ever to have kids (not very likely at this point), I would hope that I would instill that discipline in my children. Because I'll tell you now. I suck at it. Big time. And I feel bad. But anyway, that could be another post.
I have no bad memories of Christmas as a child. I hope I threw no tantrums because I didn't get what I wanted or I couldn't play with something or I wanted what my brother had, but I have no memory that I did. I hope I was appreciative of everything - even the clothes we would traditionally receive from my father's cousin. I have no soiled memories of those Christmases.
When I was thirteen, though, my memory of Christmas, itself, has been blocked out. It was very cold, and my grandparents car couldn't start to drive home just a few hours away, so they spent an extra night. Eventually, the day after, they were able to warm up the car battery or whatever it was that needed warming and they were on their way. My brother and I were downstairs in the basements - in our rooms - playing with our gifts, when my father came downstairs and told us to come upstairs because he needed to tell us something. Actually, I don't remember what he said or even that he had come downstairs, I only remember walking in the room and seeing my mother sitting on the couch crying with tears streaming down her face.
The grandparents who had just left an hour or so before were her parents, so my mind immediately shot to the worst scenario - they had been in an accident. What else would make my mother cry so?
----- I just have to say the obvious here. One of the worst things, ever, for a kid, is seeing your mom cry. That day, and several others that followed during my adolescence where she cried are the worst memories of my childhood - I always felt so helpless. -----
They sat us down - again, I presume my father did, and did all the talking, frankly, but I can't remember through the numbness. And he told us he was leaving - that they were separating.
I remember, at the time, feeling this great rush of relief. Oh, that's it? Grammy and Grandpa are okay? I hope I didn't say out loud "Oh that's it?" I think both my brother and I knew how serious things were by how serious they were. I hope I was respectful, and quiet, and didn't say anything too stupid. I can't remember.
And then we were sent downstairs to play, while my Dad packed a bag. Within an hour or so, he was gone.
(Wow - this is totally not where I thought I was going this morning with this post, but I guess I needed to)
Frankly, at first, I had no idea what to think of it all with my parents separating. They never fought - several of my friends' parents fought and so when one set separated, it wasn't surprising; and another set, surprisingly is still together thirty years later. I just viewed it at first like my father had gone away on a business trip and he would be back. It wasn't until six months later that it struck me that he wouldn't just be back, and that he couldn't just come back as if nothing had happened. And dealing with my parents' separation took me the rest of my adolescence to deal with and only as an adult do I understand my father's actions.
When Christmas rolled around the following year, my parents had been "dating" or trying to date and we had seen him somewhat regularly. My brother had left for college that fall, and so it had mostly been my mother and I together. My brother, of course, returned home for Christmas break, and we were all together to decorate the tree a week or so before Christmas. We actually had a fresh tree for the second year in a row bought by my father sitting in the stand. Several boxes of lights and ornaments from the attic were all on the living room floor waiting assembly. My brother and I were waiting in the living room and my mother and father were upstairs. My father, it was planned, was going to spend the night on Christmas eve with us so he would be there when we woke up on Christmas morning. I assumed, naively, that my parents were upstairs making out or something, since there had been several visits with him where at a certain point I was told to go downstairs so they could have time together. My mother had been working hard to woo my father back, cooking meals she never otherwise cooked, and I knew they had been (at a minimum) kissing upstairs on several occasions (I don't want to know what else, I still don't need to know what else).
So while my brother and I, increasingly impatiently, were waiting downstairs, my mother and father were upstairs. But they weren't kissing, it seems. Apparently, there had been some confusion, some miscommunication, and my father wasn't planning on spending Christmas eve with us, but instead with his girlfriend. He would come by on Christmas day, but he wouldn't wake up with us in the morning. He was clarifying this with my mother upstairs. Eventually, my father came downstairs, and I don't know exactly what he said - I can't imagine he admitted all those details to us - but my mother was upstairs crying, and my father didn't stay for us to trim the tree.
I don't know if my brother and I just trimmed the tree ourselves - or if we had already started while they were talking - but I don't remember my mother coming back downstairs to decorate, and so I assume that we did. I don't remember Christmas, frankly, at all. Although I'm sure it happened, and gifts were given, and that my father did come by.
By the next year, though, my father and his girlfriend had moved in together. My mother and I didn't bother with a tree. Pretty much that was the end of Christmas for us. Two years in a row of bad luck - to put it lightly - was enough for her. And, frankly, I can't blame her. I was fifteen, and my brother was practically on his own - I'm not certain if he even came to stay with us during his Christmas break, or whether he stayed with other friends. He hadn't lived with us over the summer so I'm not sure he did for that Christmas, either. And by the following year, he had already dropped out of college (taken a year off, which is now 28 years off, soo-o-o I don't think he's going back) and was living on his own.
I'm an adult now. I understand my father's reasons for leaving, and I can even have compassion for the timing. His girlfriend is now his wife of 20+ years, and I know, now, that he had been developing feelings for her - although had not acted directly on them - before he left my mother. I see how she is a more compatible partner for him, and I am happy for him. I can honestly say that I don't "hate" Christmas. But I'm not particularly fond of it either. I do enjoy spending it with other families. Three years ago, I was living with a family with two kids, 10 and 7 at the time, and being there to experience their joy on Christmas morning was one of the best Christmases of my life. And I wish I could have spent more with them. My ex-wife and I always wanted to spend Christmas with the grandkids when we were together, but they were across the country, and usually her son was spending it with his in-laws, so we were never invited.
Christmas, to me, is for the kids. Last year I got into a disagreement with my then-best friend over whether Christmas was just a kids' holiday - she was in the spirit, I apparently was less so. But as an adult, those were the moments that would melt my heart around Christmas - seeing the kids' enjoyment.
Today, I am content to spend the day alone, although I often will share the meal with friends, too. Last year, for exmaple, I had Christmas dinner with my priest and his partner after services that morning. I do not begrudge those for whom the day is special. But I do not look forward to 29 more days of Christmas music, either.
This was not the post I set out to write - but I guess I needed to set up the background for this season and this year.
Stay tuned for The Holidays - Part Trois.