It’s a strange time this December; a time normally filled with holiday preparations and festivities, yet, in the midst of the continuing COVID crisis, only the calendar that tells me that Christmas is nearly here—that and the Christmas lights visible here and there, and a handful of greeting cards, which, as December 25th grows near, rekindle connections and holiday memories shared in years past.
This Christmas, as a second wave of COVID continues, my husband and I will celebrate quietly—something we were “groomed” for by our two daughters as they grew into adulthood and lived far from us: Thailand, Indonesia, Beirut, Okinawa. It’s been years now since my daughters, husband and I celebrated Christmas together as a family. Ironically, while we are now only a fifteen minute drive away from our eldest daughter and her family, we’ll be spending Christmas apart this year.
Last night, my eldest daughter called on Facetime to share their tree decorating which we usually would attend. A week earlier, our younger daughter sent videos of their tree trimming in Okinawa, accompanied by Christmas carols, eggnog and laughter. I felt wistful, missing those family traditions we shared when they were younger.
It’s a bittersweet time. We’re all too aware of how life gets “smaller” as we age and our children become adults. Ye there’s nothing more joyous than celebrating the holidays together with our daughters, reading grandchildren Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, baking cookies, stuffing stockings, and on Christmas morning, sharing in the children’s excited shrieks as they open their packages. I remember my childhood and our excitement as Christmas morning finally arrived. Christmas day was full of gifts, surprises and the rambunctious extended family dinner with my aunts, uncles and cousins all in attendance—a high point of every holiday.
…Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang “Cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake’s Drum.” It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.
(From: A Child’s Christmas in Wales, By Dylan Thomas, 1955)
There were annual routines and celebrations that made those childhood Christmastimes joyful and memorable, ones I miss. Then, a week or so before Christmas, my father hiked into the snowy Northern California wilderness to cut the perfect tree, soon to be decorated with bubble lights and colored balls, and packages piled beneath the branches. I’d squint my eyes to turn the site into some kind of misty magical view. Christmas eve we’d always pile into our station wagon and drive through nearby neighborhoods “oohing” and “ahhing” over the colored lights and decorations adorning houses. Christmas morning, awakening before dawn, we’d wait in bed until we were permitted to race to the living room and open our gifts (the result of secretly waking at 3 a.m. one Christmas and secretly sheparding my younger brother to the tree to open a gift…before we were discovered by my parents). Then midday, we’d we’d load up the car with more gifts, dessert and a salad or casserole and head to my aunt’s home, celebrating Christmas day with the dozens of Bray cousins, aunts and uncles. My aunt’s living room was a maze of various tables, all of us separated into age groups. Her kitchen was filled with the roast turkeys, side dishes, salads and desserts contributed by everyone. Carols were sung around the piano, cousins performed for the adults, and the Bray brothers regaled us with family folklore, much of it exaggerated for comic effect. I learned much of my father’s family history at those holiday celebrations.
Yet there are other Christmas memories—less happy, perhaps, but yet interwoven among the memories of those childhood Christmas holidays. Looking back, I see they signaled a time to come when my family relationships would be forever scarred by dissension, loss and heartache. There was the annual “assignment,” dictated by my mother. I was instructed to paint a Christmas scene on the picture window in our front room. She was ever hopeful we’d win the annual prize for the “home Christmas decorations” contest. My artwork was colorful but untrained– the somewhat primitive work of a grade school student, and I was mildly embarrassed to have to my painting subject to public display. After three or four years (and only one honorable mention) the experience simply reinforced my belief that despite my desire to be an artist, I really was not one–or at least, exacerbated my timidity to pursue what I loved most.
Other “traditions” emerged as we grew older. Each year, when my father came home with the freshly cut Christmas tree, he suffered, more often than not, my mother’s dissatisfaction with his choice, and it became re-enacted each year, seeming he could never meet her escalating standards. Then there was the tension as he strung the lights before we could begin adding ornaments to the branches. Invariably, it signaled another disagreement began between my parents–somehow, that didn’t meet with my mother’s satisfaction. She had clear ideas for where lights and ornaments should be placed. It’s hardly surprising that once the lights were strung, Dad quietly disappeared to have a cigarette while the rest of us hung the decorations.
The excitement of opening our gifts was frequently dimmed by the moment Mother opened her gift from our father. He agonized every year about what gift to give her for Christmas, and oftentimes, my sister or I tried to help with his choice. Yet one year after the other, we’d see the disappointment registered on Mother’s face, and the tension on my father’s. Although there was much in my Christmas memories that were happy, these less positive ones are coupled with the others, repeated year after year, alwlays lingering just below the surface.
As children, we knew there was more to it –
Why some men got drunk on Christmas Eve
Wasn’t explained, nor why we were so often
Near tears nor why the stars came down so close,
Why so much was lost…
There was something about angels. Angels we
Have heard on high Sweetly singing o’er
The plain. The angels were certain. But we could not
Be certain whether our family was worthy tonight.
(From: “A Christmas Poem,” by Robert Bly, in Morning Poems,1998)
Years later, after I’d married and had several Christmases with my husband’s family, I experienced a truly happy family celebration on Christmas morning, and when our daughters arrived and we lived far from our parents and siblings, we incorporated many of my husband’s family traditions into our own celebrations, gradually adding others to blend them into the holiday traditions that I now see repeated in the Christmas celebrations of my daughters and their families. And it brings back another set of memories–the two of them, in matching blanket sleepers, eyes filled with wonder as they discovered Santa’s gifts beneath the tree on Christmas mornings.
I know my heart will ache a little this Christmas day, all too aware in these many months of COVID, how loneliness and a sense of hopelessness can drift into my thoughts. It takes conscious effort, sometimes, to refocus and remember just how rich my life has been. At least we can connect with our daughters and grandchildren via Zoom or Facetime and share Christmas virtually, easing the some of the emptiness that seeps in all too easily in these long days of the continuing pandemic.
I think what will be most important for me, even as we celebrate alone this holiday season, is that I reflect on the past year and remember what truly matters in my life—all I have to be grateful for, the times and people in my life I love and remember, and the many gifts of friendship and experiences that enrich my life daily. Yes, it will be a quieter Christmas and even a little lonely, but no less a time of gratitude. And my wish for all of us is that 2021 can bring a time of healing, a greater spirit of gratitude and generosity, and a return of hope.
December holidays past and present: What memories stand out for you about the holiday season? What family traditions have you carried and incorporated into your adult life? What new ones have you created for your own children? Are there mixed emotions for you during the holidays? What is the story behind them? What will you miss this holiday season? What matters most?