Dad, who had served a mission in Norway, liked to have us put wooden clogs outside our door that he could fill with treats. Every Sunday, my mom would light a candle in the Advent Wreath, a tradition she had picked up while on her mission in Germany. We would sing hymns, read some scripture, and eat rice pudding, and whoever got the almond in their pudding would get a prize. On Christmas Eve, we would re-enact the Nativity play — until my little sister was too big to play the baby Jesus, and none of us wanted to be Mary or the Shepherds anymore. At that point, we began sitting down as a family and reading the Nativity story, each of us reading our verses in turn.
So, preface: I’ve been having some female-related health issues that started last year. End result, after 4 pap smears with different doctors, my most recent visit with an ob-gyn (sans pap smear) resulted in my doctor saying that I have menorrhagia and potential adenomyosis, which basically means heavy periods and potential uterine lining issues. Solution? Ironically (because I had a tubal ligation so I wouldn’t have to deal with this), taking hormonal birth control.
This means that right now, I’m re-adjusting to taking birth control and (basically) readjusting all the hormone levels in my body. It also means I keep bursting into tears when there’s really no call for it, which is irritating to say the least. I don’t particularly like crying. Plus, I look awful when I cry. I’m not one of those people who looks all elegant and tragic; I look puffy and red.
Today, my husband and I were watching Community, which is an awesome show that I highly recommend to anyone with a sense of humor. The particular episode was the season 2 Christmas episode, or Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas. Basically, Abed (a Muslim) wanted to find the meaning of Christmas. It was a curious premise, but we soon learn that Abed’s mother was Polish, and that he linked Christmas with her — and this year, she had decided to spend Christmas with her new family instead of Abed.
This revelation came about 3/4 of the way through the episode, and I spent the remainder of the episode quietly crying. Why? Because in my experience, Christmas was always a time for family. My mom loved Christmas. I still tend to refer to the month of December as “Christmastime,” because growing up, that’s what it was.
Officially, the Christmas decorations weren’t supposed to come out until the first of December, but somehow Santa Clauses and angels and garlands began popping up right after Thanksgiving dinner. Mom collected Santa Clauses, and the mantel over the fireplace would be lined with figurines and carvings of Santa Claus versions from every country. There was St. Nicholas and Black Peter (with his bag of whips), a German Nutcracker Santa Claus, a blue-robed Scandanavian Santa Claus, and many, many more. My dad had these little Henning wood-carved trolls from Norway, with clever little eyes and wide-stretched laughing smiles.
During the Christmas season, he would hide them around the house — sometimes they peeked out from behind Santa’s legs, sometimes you would glimpse them in the branches of the Christmas tree. My parents had us kids do a “pixie week” when we were younger. Basically, we drew each other’s names out of a hat and had to do nice things (cleaning a sibling’s room, doing their laundry, buying small presents) without letting on who was doing what. It was like a Secret Santa, but with good deeds.
I remember the warmth, the sense of belonging and home, as we lounged and curled around the Christmas tree, cradling our scriptures and basking in the love of our family. My parents always put white lights on the tree, never colored or flashing, — dad said the white lights were like the candles that had traditionally been used on the trees — and they would reflect in the dark of the windows like stars floating down to earth.
And through it all, the house smelled incredible. Mom baked all month long, cookies and cakes and pies, treats that she would inevitably wrap up and distribute to the neighbors and ward members as well as her family. There was the rice pudding on Sundays and the big brunch on Christmas day. We would often have a big honey-roasted ham on Christmas, too.
Decorating almost had a liturgy to it — Dad would tug out the cardboard boxes that were falling apart, and we would begin to unpack the ornaments. “Oh,” I would cry out as I pulled out the small, crystalline angel that hung by a gold thread and caught the lights just so, “I love this!”
“Me too, me too,” my little sister would shout, scrambling over the boxes and tissue paper to get to me. “I get to hang her this year!”
“You got to hang her last year, I get to do it this year,” I would respond, like the brat I was.
Mom would try and distract us, bringing something else out, tempting us with positioning the dolls in the branches (a German tradition) or offering to let one of us hang the home-made felt stockings, personalized to each of her children (mine had a pink and white angel on it, my name written under it in curling gold braid). It usually worked, until the year I tried to hide the crystal angel in my pocket so I could hang her later, and then I forgot about her and found her the next year, crushed to bits in my jacket.
Finally, with an air of fanfare, we would unpack the wooden Nativity scene, and mom would share the story of how she had scoured the shops in Germany, looking for the perfect set. She would recount again — with dad interrupting, laughing at the old story — about how she’d found one carved wooden set that she really liked, but when she picked it up, it turned out to have Barbie dolls underneath the wooden casing! And then, just when she thought she would never find the perfect set, she saw it — our Nativity scene, in a little out-of-the-way shop. We would all look at it then, the delicately carved figures — Mary, with her serene, Madonna-like features, and wee baby Jesus, who you could set in Mary’s outstretched arms or in the tiny manger. And Joseph, with his wise sad eyes and long beard, standing watch over Mary’s shoulder.
After all the decorations were out, someone would say, “The angel! Where’s the wax angel!” The wax Nuremburg angel. In my mind, she was always impossibly beautiful and exquisite, with long arching wings and a delicate, cloth-of-gold dress that overlaid a simple white linen shift. She had a tiny, perfect face with small, pink lips and a slightly sloping nose, offset by her large dark eyes.
I was always ever so slightly disappointed to actually unpack her — she wore a brown velvet dress with gold detailing, and her gold wings were small and stubby. But then, as I held the delicate figure, a slow appreciation for her muted loveliness would wash over me. The brown velvet really did set off the gold detailing, I would notice. And the darkness of her dress and eyes made her softly curling hair seem pale and otherwordly. She really was a work of art.
Whoever unpacked her would carefully hand her to the person next to them, and they would hand her on until dad accepted her into his care and placed her atop the tree.
As a child, Christmas was the most wonderful time of the year. Not because of presents (although those were nice!) or treats — it was because of family. Traditions. Because mom always smiled in December, and because we all tried a little harder to be mindful of each other’s feelings.
Christmas hasn’t been the same since 2000. That was the last Christmas I spent with my family, the Christmas before John and I were engaged. It was the first Christmas John and I spent together — although we’d only been officially dating since late October, when I found out he wasn’t celebrating Christmas at his house that year (his sister was doing something with her church and his parents were out of town with a load), I invited him to join our family. That was the best Christmas of my life — I was surrounded by everyone I held most dear, and the world all seemed to fit together perfectly.
But the next year, mom was sick. It was hard to get into the season, somehow, without her enthusiasm. And it turns out that John wasn’t all that interested in the holiday season — he didn’t enjoy Christmas carols or the thrill of decorating; to him it was all just kid stuff and a hassle. Plus, we were poor newlyweds, and he didn’t see the point of celebrating if we weren’t able to afford it.
I didn’t realize then how different our conceptions and experiences of Christmas were. I thought it was just the stress of the season, my mom’s sickness, the lack of shared traditions. And maybe, just maybe, that is it. Every single year we’ve been under massive financial, emotional, and lifestyle stress when the holiday season rolls around. Every single year, there’s been something that makes it hard to get into the holiday spirit, and every single year, I end up feeling depressed and disappointed when Christmas rolls around.
There was the first Christmas after mom’s death, which was just . . . awful. No words for how much I miss her during Christmas time — it’s almost worse than the actual month she died. There was the Christmas after I realized I didn’t believe in god, when I had a crisis of conscious and wondered how I could possibly continue to celebrate a holiday I’d always been taught was spiritual, not material. There was the Christmas I tried to focus on the material instead of the spiritual and felt empty and pointless all season. There was the Christmas John’s Nana died, and he wanted to spend it with some new friends instead of family (everyone deals with grief in their own way, don’t judge). There was last Christmas, when we didn’t get a tree or decorate or anything at all.
Part of me wonders if this is just part and parcel of being an adult. Maybe Christmas is only magical for kids. Maybe the day my mom died, Christmas as I knew it died. But part of me — the part that sings the score from Fiddler on the Roof and the part that still appreciates church hymns even if I don’t buy into the doctrine and the part that thrills toward human connection and tradition and the meaning of family — part of me refuses to believe that wondering Christmas feeling will never be recaptured.
Maybe John and Kidling and I will have different traditions — but we can still build our own traditions. We have been — for instance, the past 5 years (except for last year), we’ve taken the tree into the backyard the last week of December and had a bonfire. And every year I hang the Christmas decorations, I tell Kidling stories about family and traditions and the important of forgiveness and acceptance. And every year we give gifts, I try ridiculously hard to surprise John, and every year I fail at surprising him — but I keep trying, because I love trying. I love picking out the presents and I love wrapping them into beautiful, decorative packages, and I love tying off the bows and lettering neat little tags, and I love watching them get opened.
Basically, I’m getting emotional because I’m conflicted about Christmas celebrations and adjusting to hormonal birth control, and I saw a t.v. episode today that brought all that to the surface and made me cry, so I blogged about it. Fun, huh?