Christmas is coming, ready or not
Although I have good Christmas memories of childhood, as an adult I’ve had a hot and cold relationship with Christmas. Having deserted Christianity in my late teens is probably part of it, although UUs observe the various solstice holidays this time of year; some of it is age and boredom after so many Christmases; and some of it was being married to Ebenezer Scrooge for 21 years. It wasn’t a major factor in divorcing my first husband but it was another tiny nail in the coffin. Only after the kids came along did we do Christmas “right,” or what I considered correct, with a large and often live—in a root ball, to be planted outside—tree, lots of presents, lights and decorations, parties and all. Putting up the tree almost always ended with him mad and me in tears, until Melissa, the first-born who could pour oil on troubled waters, would smooth things out and I could admire the grandeur of the finished tree. Unfortunately she suffered from allergies and we eventually switched to artificial trees.
When I was single I promised myself if I ever remarried it would be to someone who at least liked Christmas. Gary and I agreed soon after we met that couples should, as he put it, “go around the year together” before getting married. We went “around” a year-and-a half, and he enjoys Christmas at about the same level I do: we don’t go crazy and spend a lot of money, but we enjoy the decorations, lights, parties, music and good spirits of the season.
Most people who know me would probably say I’m either artistic or creative, but there are creative areas in which I have little or no skill, and nobody will ever mistake me for Martha Stewart.
I’m terrible at cake decorating and wrapping presents. I love the idea of gardening and play at it but I’ve never had a garden that would appear on anyone’s tour. I’m a decent home cook, especially comfort foods like soups, pasta dishes and homemade bread, and though I try to keep an attractive home, my interior decorating ability is merely passable.
Many of those skills have something in common: they are ephemeral, with the exception of interior design. Food is eaten, wrapping paper is tossed, and gardens eventually die (especially in Texas). I prefer the permanence of poems on the page and paint on canvas.
I know people who completely redecorate their homes for the holidays—from special china and tablecloths to a big tree in the living room and smaller satellite trees throughout, swags on the fireplace and the house surrounded by sparkling lights. I want to know where they keep all that stuff! I’ve kept the number of Christmas boxes about the same through the past 15 or 20 years: two large-ish boxes stored on a shelf in the garage. For many years I used the same tiny artificial tree bought, in a box with all its lights, tinsel and ornaments, at Walgreen’s when I was single. It finally lost so many of its fake needles each year I gave it up and replaced it with an equally tiny but slightly more realistic looking one (it has a burlap-wrapped “root ball”) that I bought at Garden Ridge after Christmas a couple of years ago for about $5 (but still kept most of the ornaments from its predecessor). This year I bought new LED lights, partly for the environment and partly because they’re cooler and safer. I also found, to my amazement, that a candy dish I had made at Café Monet with my Wine and Whine group is almost the exact same shade of green as the trimming on a snowman-decorated candy jar I received as a gift a few years ago. Many, no, most of the little decorative pieces around the house have been gifts, reflecting my dislike of shopping (tune in for a future posting, “Agoraphobia.”) I even display a set of soft sculpture figures, a family of elves that Melissa made in high school.
I never start Christmas preparations until not only Thanksgiving is past, but also when the special music our choir sings the first Sunday in December is over. We have extra rehearsals and also sing at the North-Central Caregivers benefit concert on the first Friday, so I want all that behind me before I even think about decorations, cards, presents or cooking for the holidays.
But this year, to amuse the 5-year-old, we put them up on December 1, smack in the middle of the rehearsal schedule. I waited to bring the boxes in the house so she would be invested in helping, and also because it’s a little like opening presents each year, pulling out the ornaments loaded with memories. Chloe kept unpacking while I strung the lights, then we decorated together. It was really hard for me when she put two nearly identical white crocheted snowflakes next to each other; I tried to move them apart, but she said no, she liked them that way. Gramma love overcame my need for perfection and symmetry, so they remain where she put them.
She has asked me several times why we have such a small tree. “Because we live in a small house and don’t have room for a big tree,” I always answer. Then she asks why we live in a small house, and I tell her it’s big enough for us and we like it. (A 1,300 square foot condo with two bedrooms, loft—my studio—living, dining, kitchen and 2 ½ baths and two-car garage is not especially small. Do two adults need three toilets?) In the car yesterday Chloe told me she had thought of someplace we could put a big tree, but she forgot to show me when we got here. It’s just as well because (a) I doubt if it would really be appropriate, and (b) I’m not going to do it anyway.
What we did do was make snowflakes. I had read that coffee filters are good for folding and cutting, but then I realized I use cone filters so I quickly cut some plain white paper into squares, then circles, and used the odd ends to make smaller circles. We cut and cut—Chloe making some clearly non-snowflakes—and then, with trepidation, I got out white glue and glitter to decorate them. No matter how careful we were—we worked in the kitchen, using a paint brush to apply the glue and tried to keep the glitter all on a big cutting board—the kitchen was still as decorated as the snowflakes. Fortunately the next day was cleaning day and my housekeeping elves got most of it.
While I fixed dinner I asked Chloe to stick the snowflakes on the sliding glass doors, and “please don’t use too much tape,” and she got a stool and put them much higher than you would expect. She used more tape than I would, but did a pretty good job.
My favorite memories of Christmas are of my very early childhood when we still lived in England. We had a real tree in the bay window in the living room, with actual candles clipped to it! It would be lit only once, on Christmas Eve, and Dad had a bucket of water handy. What a thrill it was to see a Christmas tree lit with candles! My favorite Christmas story is Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales, because his memories are similar to mine. We had Christmas crackers (the kind you pull, with a small cap strip inside that makes a pop); real plum pudding with brandied hard sauce (I have my mother’s old pudding basin, the china all crazed, which I’ve used once or twice to steam a Christmas pudding); a roast chicken, probably the only one we’d have during the year. Our stockings weren’t lavish, but an orange and a few walnuts in the bottom were a treat in those days. For some strange reason, even though we had a fireplace, in our household Santa put our stockings at the foot of our bed, a tradition I continued with my kids. It’s tough for a big guy like that to sneak into the bedroom without waking a child, so it’s curious how that tradition started. I must ask my sister if she knows.
My absolutely best and most memorable Christmas was when I was five or six. I still remember walking down the stairs and seeing everything my parents (or Santa) had laid out for me—it was my personal little nativity! My parents had acquired a doll nearly the size of a real baby, with a cloth body and china head, and they had produced a nursery’s worth of accoutrements: my mother knitted a beautiful layette; my father, a welder, made the frame for a bassinette and my mother covered it in pink satin (it even had a hood over one end) and for all I know the whole thing could be folded up and put away; finally, the pièce de résistance: a doll-sized perfect replica of a real English pram, which was new and could not have been inexpensive.
I have no idea what happened to all of this, or my second favorite doll, a cloth gypsy named, of course, “Carmen.” Not because the baby doll would be a priceless antique today—what I wouldn’t give to have every one of those pieces today.
I hope my children and grandchildren have some memories as good as that. One tradition we’ve kept for many years is decorating cookies. Since Gary and I have been married, we usually get together with my kids on Christmas Eve, and then we go to Fort Worth/Arlington on Christmas day to be with Gary’s friends and family. I don’t mind baking cookies but I don’t like decorating them, so a few days ahead of time I bake a big batch of sugar cookies cut out as stars, santas, angels and circles for making snowmen, and everyone else does the decorating. The adult men—Gary and Mike—seem to get into it the most.
Several years ago, after the grandchildren came along, we agreed to forgo gifts for adults and give them only to the kids. I agree with the philosophy of Joel Waldfogel, author of Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays, who argues that most Christmas gifts are a waste of money and that we get more value and satisfaction from spending the money on ourselves. But of course I wouldn’t be a Scrooge with the kids.
I’m still old-fashioned enough to do real mailed Christmas cards, and this week I put together a Christmas letter. I always panic a little in early December about getting the overseas cards to my cousins in the mail, and they’re gone. So I’ll be shopping and baking (and blogging) for the next two and a half weeks, now that the house is as decorated as it’ll ever be.