First of all: Shut up. This is a great time to write about Christmas. No one else is doing it.
When you first become a parent, you think ahead to all the stuff you want to do with your kid as he grows up. Mostly, this involves looking back to your own childhood and cherry-picking all the cool things you want to repeat. Happy family memories often come from vacations and holidays, so you look to them as a kind of template for forming new happy memories. That only makes sense.
But what do you do if the Christmas you grew up with was… broken?
My father was a pastor, and as you might imagine, Christmas was a busy time of year for him, so once Thanksgiving hit, it was pretty much, “see you on December 26th, Dad.” (Same for lent and Easter, by the way.) Dad had services, Christmas programs, and the meltdowns of other families to contend with, so the rest of us were on our own. That left my mother with four kids and a holiday to prepare for. My mother was further hampered by a couple additional burdens, proving to be a deadly one-two combination:
One: An absolutely unreasonable boatload of expectations. My mother felt burdened by the ghosts of generations past to full-on Martha Stewart her way to the perfect Christmas Home, and at a time before Martha Stewart was even around to throw a magazine her way. And in case the ghosts weren’t making themselves clear enough, I have a feeling her mother-in-law was happy to provide real-time “encouragement.” Add to that an expectation of the times that the Pastor’s Home was to be a public place where parishioners and board members could be expected to drop by any time. Hell, I remember the adult church choir caroling at our house every year on Christmas Eve, after which they expected to be invited in for refreshments. My mother would welcome them in. All this while the woman was trying to keep four kids scrubbed and presentable through three services, our absence from any one of which would have been noticed. And prepare an elaborate traditional Swedish Christmas Eve smorgasbord for the family, including foods that she had to import from two states away.
Two: My mother, to put it kindly, lacked organizational skills. I don’t entirely blame her for putting the work off; I would have been intimidated by the Herculean Labor that was Christmas as well. But the result was that on December 23rd every year, my mother, and therefore the entire house, went into panic mode.
My job usually involved the Christmas China. We had a couple sets, passed down over the years, along with a couple boxes of silver. It was often my task to run down to the basement and bring all this stuff up, along with the Christmas Tree-shaped Jello molds, and other holiday whatnot. And since it hadn’t been used in a year, it all had to be hand-washed, and the silver polished. There were a ton of other decorations, manger scenes, and accoutrements to be handled as well, all because “it’s not Christmas” without them.
My mother was frantically cooking and baking, running upstairs in between to wrap our Christmas presents. It was unmanageable. As a result, I do not remember a single Christmas Eve Day that did not contain at least one episode of my mother bursting into tears, lamenting that Christmas was “ruined” this year.
Keep in mind, all this is set against the backdrop of a need to present the façade of the ideal family to her husband’s congregation.
There are many wonderful things about my mother, many things I am grateful for. But Christmas did not bring out the best in her. If she was going down, she was taking the rest of the family with her. I envied my father for having a legitimate reason to stay out of the house.
Christmas, in my house, was hell. All the drama, all the tears, anger, and recriminations, over things. Over stuff that was supposed to be peripheral to the holiday in the first place. We learned early on that any suggestions that we ease up on any of the preparations were not welcome. After all, all this was for us kids. Didn’t we appreciate all that our mother had done for us?
Honestly, no. I wish my mother could have seen that. For her sake. I would have loved to have given the woman a Christmas where we gave her a couple Valium, exchanged presents in the bags they came in from the store, and had Count Chocula for Christmas dinner. I would have loved to have seen her relax and enjoy her family on Christmas. If she noticed the stress and misery in our faces, she probably recognized it from her own childhood, and figured she was doing her job. I cannot imagine that she looked forward to holidays any more than we did.
For years, I was furious with my mother for the damage she’d done to holidays for me. Nowadays, I understand a little more. Nowadays, I grieve for her, and for all the joy she was robbed of.
My mother died about six months before The Knucklehead was born. My sister took it upon herself to organize my parents’ belongings and arrange for the sale of the house, for which my other siblings and I were grateful. As she was doing this, she made boxes for each of us, separating out some of the keepsakes and heirlooms that she believed would have meaning for us.
When I opened one of the boxes she gave me, I found the Christmas china.
I have to say, I think I handled the situation with great calm. We were living in an apartment complex at the time, and I took the box down to the car. I pulled the car out of our parking spot, and placed the box down.
I got in the car and backed up over the box.
I did it again. A third time. I did it until I couldn’t hear crunching from inside the box anymore. And then I took the box to the dumpster, and tossed away all the Christmases I didn’t want to burden my knucklehead with.
I was certain at the time that this was something I was going to regret later, as exhilarating as it felt while doing it. Twenty years later, I have yet to feel regret over obliterating that God-damned china. It wasn’t my proudest moment, but I think I needed to do it at the time. It was my reset button. It was my way of planting a flag in the family line and saying, “Henceforth, things will be different. I will no longer bind my child to the mistakes of the past. I will make enough mistakes of my own not to burden this kid with tradition for its own sake.”
I wrote a few weeks ago that our religions need to serve us, not the other way around. I think the same goes for our holidays. Our holiday rituals and traditions can be wonderful things, but only if they bring us closer together, or give us a clearer understanding of the values we’re celebrating. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with going balls-to-the-wall Martha Stewart over the holidays, if that’s what brings you and your family closer together. For us, it did not. It had to go.
I don’t write this to evoke pity for my childhood. I write this because many of us have difficult memories of family holidays. I write this because this story has a happy ending, because I found a way out of that cycle. I write this because I want to let people know that we are able to amend the mistakes of the past. That it truly is never too late to have a happy childhood. My Knucklehead helped me to find real joy over holidays, and we did it by reinventing the celebrations, eventually able to reclaim the traditions of the past in the way they were meant to be enjoyed. I’ll tell you how next week.
It’s funny. When I totaled my mother’s china, it felt like an entirely selfish act. Now I realize that somewhere, she was probably cheering me on.
If so, I’m honored to have done that for her. I just wish she could have been there to take a pass at the china herself.