it’s christmas eve at my parents still-new home in new hampshire, everywhere I look is covered in snow.
I come from a christmas household. I grew up going to church, to midnight candlelight services, singing hymns and carols, decorating a dying tree, shopping at german Kristmasmarts, out in the snow with candied apples and cold noses, amused by the little wooden toys that were all the rage a century ago. I grew up moving in and out of religious experiences, but Christmas was consistent.
My sisters and I would put out cookies for Santa, then all bunk into one room and maintain a state of total anticipatory titillation until we passed out, then we’d wake up at 5am, and one of us – usually me – would sneak out of the room and into the living room to assess what we had gotten from Santa. we weren’t allowed to touch anything till our parents woke up, and the whole thing had to be done in utmost silence, which is a high order for a child. finally we would get the parents up, sit in the early morning dark, drink hot cocoa, open presents.
a high emphasis was put on choosing Really Good Presents – that included cologne for my dad who never wore cologne, soap dishes for my mom, handmade cards, stuff that feels very necessary from a 5-year-old’s perspective. my parents were always completely beside themselves at the high caliber of our presents, they made giving the most fun part of Christmas. after we kids were done opening things, my parents would continue with their presents to each other, trying to one up each other, while we kids sat there patiently, watching them be a couple, instead of just our parents.
then when the gift opening was done and the gratitude expressed, we would relax for a day of having yummy breakfast, playing with new things or watching new movies together, then having a big and wonderful Christmas supper. it was just us – 3, then 4, then 5 of us. we were a military family, so we recreated this same Christmas experience in several places. people would call, send gifts in, but really the focus was on how well we 5 knew each other, and could pick just the right thing.
when my dog was alive, Sugarfoot, she would be trying to pull down the tree, and you know they make stockings full of dog treats, so she was all up in it.
one year, when I was little, I actually saw Santa, and he was very handsome, he looked like the most handsome person I knew then – our neighbor Bob. I was a child, so it was fine to me that he looked just like, but was not, my neighbor…Superman fooled adults with a pair of glasses, right?
As I got older we stopped using live trees, we got an artificial one with lights built in to it. When we snuck out to look, more of the presents from Santa would be wrapped. There were more gift certificates, still really well-chosen. One year, my little sister was studying abroad and didn’t come home. The next, we didn’t go to a candlelight service. The presents got fewer, we slept in later, we grew up – but even though we were all in or past college, but we didn’t given up the Christimas ritual.
we still haven’t. not for lack of thinking…we have developed an analysis around capitalism, have heard that Christmas is an orgy of spending on things no one needs, that Santa is the patron saint of greed, that there’s either way too much Jesus or not enough Jesus. i have heard people i love say that the whole thing is just silly and dumb and disgusting and a lie, and all of that. and i can see that. a lot of people have never experienced a really nice, good, love-filled semi-religious ritual. there are households where folks give each other tons of unnecessary crap, there are households where there isn’t enough time or resources to make it feel magical, there are households where the love is missing year-round and christmas is an attempt to balance it out with ‘things’. we just don’t do it that way.
now, we do it this way – i spend months thinking about really perfect gifts for each member of my family. we’ve had a big year, retirements and heart scares and babies and weddings and changes and blow-ups and drama and, you know, life. now, under the tree, are gifts i am really happy to give in the context of this past year. i helped decorate the tree, initially because it makes my mom really happy, but as we did it i realized that most of the ornaments are ones we made when we were kids, or that come from a specific place we lived, and it became a time to remember aloud our childhood. we have been relaxing for days, and tonight we will stay in, get lots of sleep, and tomorrow we will give to each other, and then cook. we made a commitment this year to really limit the presents, choosing one perfect present, instead of 30 sweet ones. we don’t want to be excessive, or wasteful; we don’t want to give people things they don’t want or need. we’re having a low-waste christmas, using recycled wrapping paper. little baby steps.
the whole year, and this whole ritual, makes me feel a huge tenderness for my parents, who pieced together this ritual from their own very different childhoods – from dreams and fantasies and fairy tales. they built this magical experience as two young people who fell in love with each other and then had to leave the south in order to pursue that love. i imagine them in their 20s, with me and my sisters as little babies, the military paying their bills and giving them a way out of their racist hometowns. it’s ironic and complex, but it was all about having good life, about giving us a “good” life.
as we’ve gotten older and rejected the systems and beliefs that sit on the surface of rituals like christmas (and the good military), i’ve seen their confusion, and their attempt to be clear with the intentions they once had. i’ve seen them maintain the idea of love against our explorations. and then i’ve seen my parents deepen their own definition of what good means, as their children continue learning and pushing and breaking barriers and envisioning good that doesn’t depend on inequality/injustice. i’ve seen my parents get older.
also, at a certain point, we daughters have challenged ourselves to go deeper – to see the sacrifices our parents made in order to create a better life for us, and respect these small rituals of that better life.
these spaces that feel safe, and loving, and generous, these are about family and community. i always want to develop my analysis within the context of family and community, even though those are often the hardest places to apply radical thinking. i hate when people use radical thinking as a sword to cut cut slice away at community and family.
or maybe that’s all just a way to say, at 30, i never want to give up the beautiful thing my family does at this time of year, the way it feels to be this present with each other. i wrote this earlier as a post on facebook, and i think, paraphrased, it fits here: Its up to you how you experience your life – see the miracle, or madness, or mundane…they’re all omnipresent. I’m choosing the miracle as often as possible.