Eliminating martyrdom from tradition
The Christmas season was very busy for my father, a pastor. He coordinated extra services, music, stress, and a packed sanctuary for several Christmas services. Mother was baking and decorating and shopping and wrestling four kids into festive clothes.
We kids found the hiding place for presents some years, most years not. Opening the presents wasn’t as fun when you had sneak peaked what was inside. The presents from “Mom and Dad” were always what Mom bought and wrapped.
There were difficult Christmases, of course. I was stranded at O’Hare airport with a baby, a snowstorm raging. We all came home for my mother’s last Christmas, and then again for the first one without her, when we seemed to get into endless bickering, my siblings and I.
My father remarried and my stepmother and he spent Christmas in their senior living residence in Arizona. It seemed like a not-so-subtle intent to bypass two sets of families and expectations, and live in relative quiet (pun intended).
I understood the move, even if I wasn’t reconciled. But it was better than the first and last big forced Thanksgiving, with new adult step-siblings that had little in common.
I became the one who hosted Christmas for my siblings.
I was a single parent with two kids, making the traditional foods in our family.
Some years I was managing residential facilities, and we did Christmas up in a really big way at work, in order for our residents to have a great celebration and not feel bad for spending Christmas in treatment. It was a safe place for them to be. We rewrote and sang fractured Christmas carols, the staff gave a carefully chosen gift to each resident, then served residents a traditional holiday dinner… it was all a big deal.
My early years in New York City coincided with the era of big drunken company parties, and blow-out holiday celebrations before the company cultures shifted around the amount of alcohol consumed and the ensuing hanky-panky. I enjoyed the white elephant gift exchange, the City sights and sounds of Christmas, the over-the-top windows on Fifth Avenue, and attending a concert of holiday carols in Rockefeller Center with 100 tubas. The memories blur together, but holidays in New York City were fun.
I became a martyr, a role I hate, after years of hosting holidays at my house. One Wednesday before Thanksgiving, which I had taken off work to prepare, the state auditors showed up at our residential facility for a surprise inspection. I was furious I had to go in to work— I knew that since we were located in the capital city, we were a quick drive and the auditors could get back on time to the office. They ruined a couple of other holiday preparations for me over the years.
The Christmas tree was a sad part of what became our traditional tree. In Minnesota in winter, the trees were often stacked against wooden fences in lots, branches frozen closed. It wasn’t till we got the tree home and it thawed out and the branches dropped that I would see the big hole in one side (that side would go against the wall), or the crooked stump that required the tree to be tied to the curtain rod.
I remarked how lovely the tree was this year in my son’s home. He said they go to cut it down on a tree farm, and although he tried to find “a Charlie Brown tree like we always had,” all their trees were symmetrical and full. Who knew my ineptitude would create a beloved memory?
The holidays’ transition as our living situations and family configurations transition. If there was one mistake my mother made and I followed, it was the belief we needed to get the holidays right All By Ourselves, and then be resentful about all the work involved because nobody helped. Well, divide up the tasks, drop some, make it fun, and get rid of the resentment.
I remember three little girls walking arm-in-arm down our street and singing “Let it Go” from the Disney movie Frozen. It should be a theme song for the holidays.
Whether our holidays have been a reheated bowl of soup in a cold apartment or a forced get-together of gritting-their-teeth strangers or a beloved tradition shared with family, the holidays will change again. We can “Let it Go.”