Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas tradition: the ties that bind

This is for Write of Passage - see here for details

As a child I struggled against my mother's Christmas traditions. I found certain of the strictures beyond enduring and others filled me with comfort and joy, just like the songs we sang at church.

Christmas trees were decorated on Christmas Eve only, and taken down on Epiphany. During the pre-Christmas season of Advent, an ancient German glitter bespecked cardboard bird was hung in the house, and our parents told us Walter would tell them and Santa how we'd behaved, and if we would deserve presents. Our Christmas morning began with stockings to be opened by each person at their speed of choice, either as fast as possible in one's own bed, waiting for the others to get up and enjoy each other, or slowly, over the course of the day or even the twelve days of Christmas. All stocking presents were wrapped in gaily colored paper, and every single thing in the stocking, even Kleenex, was wrapped except gold coins in the toe and candy canes at the top, peeking out, just so. Our breakfast was always, and I mean always, Little Sizzlers sausages, grapefruit halves, and Sara Lee pecan coffee cake. We had to go to church and on our return we could finally get at the presents. Before we began to open "tree" presents we would first open the "couch" presents that were all presents from anyone other than immediate family. All tree presents were wrapped in white tissue paper and tied with red ribbon, no exceptions. Friends might call me at 9:00 or 10:00 a.m. to compare our respective loot, only to find I had not yet opened any of the real presents.

Some of these traditions remained difficult to carry on. I challenge you to wrap a bicycle in sheets of white tissue. When my sister married her husband balked at the white tissue. My husband snorts with laughter when I swear at the layers of wrapping as I put tissue on gifts, then ask him to stick his finger in to help me knot the ribbon. Five family gifts this year went out from my house in white butcher paper as a compromise, and I probably had only ten presents in white under my tree. After blackmailing my daughter with Santa's ever watchful eyes, I didn't hang my Walter bird and tell her he'd be observing her, because I thought that might be a lot of pressure for a three year old, and, she might put his eye out. Still, I wrap every gift in the stockings save candy, at great personal cost to my sleep in the weeks before Christmas. I don't attend church anymore, and I miss the Advent hymns, but I can't remember them well enough to torture my children with more than an opening line. My tree must be large to hold all my cherished ornaments and it looks just like my mother's always did.

When I was young I hated the waiting; now I can hold onto presents for days without batting an eye, in fact, I feel joy in the savoring. This may have been the beginning of me actually learning anything at all about patience. When I was young I did not know how comforting patterns were, and how disturbing to have the people around us change. As a parent, the necessity of routine is much more apparent, and I know now what it is to feel lost when the pattern is lost.

This year my mother ate her sausages at our Christmas brunch at my sister's home, and liked the sausage links I brought. Perhaps a woman shouldn't know and love the taste of a certain type of frozen sausage but she does. I brought a sauage I like better and so we didn't have Little Sizzlers but she liked fresh maple links more. We laughed, but it hurt just a little to see her change. It's her second year without a Christmas tree in her home, as the physical effort to put it up and take it down has become too great for her and my dad. Change is coming, and it won't be easy. I hope it tastes as good as maple.


  1. Blending the Christmas traditions of two families was difficult. Luckily, we are both of German heritage, so it wasn't as hard as it could have been if we were, oh, Chinese and Muslim.

  2. Hello, I found you on the NaBloPoMo randomizer! Happy New Year! I think you are right about the necessity of routine, especially for young children. I haven't bothered with Christmas decorations/traditions in ages, as I don't feel that where I live now is really "home", and so it feels wrong to go to any effort. I look forward to the day when I will feel at home somewhere.

    Have a lovely 2010!