Making the day special through the years

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Photo by Chad Madden on Unsplash

Many years ago, my mother-in-law, The Grinch, declared that “Christmas is just another day of the year.” She was disappointed that Christmas wasn’t the magical event that Hallmark movies and Normal Rockwell had promised, and decided that the best response to that was just to be cynical about the whole thing.

I remember thinking at the time, “Well, of course, it’s just a day. It’s only filled with warmth and magic, and beauty if you make it that way. Christmas isn’t going to just make itself!” Christmas can be whatever you want it to be, including a day of no particular importance if that’s what suits your religious, cultural, or other preferences.

When I was growing up, we didn’t go hog-wild with presents, although we did always get a couple of nice gifts, that wasn’t really what made it Christmas — at least not after we got out of elementary school. For me, having family traditions is what made this time of year really memorable and special.

We always had something special for dinner on Christmas Eve, and that was something that I looked forward to. We had a small family, so it was nearly always just Mom, Dad, me and my brother. Dinner was often something with seafood, which we didn’t really get to eat much of the rest of the year. I love seafood, and it was fun to put out the special red cloth napkins and make a pretty table, perhaps with some holly from the yard as a centerpiece.

After dinner, we’d open one gift each, and then go to the Christmas Eve church service. Although attending church wasn’t really my favorite thing, especially in my later teen years, I did enjoy seeing it decorated with ribbons and evergreens, candles, and poinsettias. I liked singing the carols and listening to the traditional readings from the book of Luke, even after I realized that the one told in the book of Matthew told a slightly different story.

After all, it was the being together in celebration of something numinous and going through the same rituals every year that helped to mark the day as special. Even after I was no longer a practicing Christian, I could still get a lot out of Christmas eve church services.

After we got home, we might sit by the tree and have a glass of egg nog, or find something to watch on TV. But even when my brother and I were older, we didn’t really stay up very late on Christmas eve. We knew we would be getting up early the next day.

The first thing on Christmas morning we’d open our stockings. All four of us had one. Mom had hand-knitted the ones for herself and Dad when they were first married, but by the time we kids came along, she’d given up on knitting and we had nice store-bought ones for us instead, with our names at the top. Even when we were young children, everyone got things in their stocking — not just the kids.

There was always a tangerine in the toe of the stocking and then an assortment of candies and other small gifts. As we kids got older, we started drawing names to see who would fill which stocking. It was always a fun challenge to find small but special items to put in them. I especially liked the years when I drew my Dad’s name.

After stockings had been opened, we had breakfast. There were more delicious things that we didn’t typically eat at other times of the year, like chocolate croissants, or some kind of fancy egg dish. Only then, after breakfast was over, would we head back into the living room to begin opening presents.

In my family, we always took turns, and everyone would watch as someone else opened their gift so that we could all have the anticipation and the enjoyment of it. I remember one year when I was in college and I got 8 dinner plates of a type of depression glass that I’d been collecting since my grandmother had given me a sugar and creamer set when I was 12. I think my parents were almost as excited to watch me open it as I was to receive them.

When James and I were first married, we kept a lot of my childhood traditions, including filling stockings for each other, and we tried to keep them going when our son Hugh was born. It worked out pretty well until he was about 3. The year before he had suddenly undergone a huge developmental regression and had been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. Everything was suddenly a lot more intense, including his level of anxiety and having the need to feel in control.

To be honest, I think I’ve kind of blocked out most of the details of the Christmases we had when Hugh was a child. He loved the season and things like putting up a Christmas tree but had to have it decorated just the way he wanted it. No more white lights and sprigs of red berries tucked between the branches. No more White House Christmas ornaments from the historical association.

Hugh wanted the kind of tree that he’d seen on children’s TV programs and movies, so we switched to colored lights and only round ornaments. I missed getting to decorate the tree in the way that I wanted to, but on the other hand, Christmas is for children in many ways.

Hugh was so bought into the myth of Christmas that one year he came downstairs and looked out of the back door. When he saw that there was no snow (there almost never was), he stamped his little foot in disappointment and disgust. It was cute, but it was also a manifestation of just how wrapped up in the idea of what Christmas was supposed to be he was.

Most years, from that third Christmas on until about 3 or 4 years ago, Hugh would be manic with anticipation the night before, and then overwhelmed and overwrought on Christmas day. His enjoyment of his gifts would be overshadowed by something like the fact that the video he wanted wasn’t the one with the correct copyright year on it, or that we weren’t able to find something that he wanted (often because it didn’t exist outside of cartoons).

He would be happy for a little while, and then finally succumb to all the emotions that were washing over him. James and I might have a few minutes of joy and pleasure, but then we’d spend the rest of the morning recovering from the meltdown that Hugh would inevitably have, and our efforts to soothe and comfort him.

Every year, I’d kind of forget that it was going to be like that, and every year, for about 12 or 13 years, that’s pretty much what would happen. At least as Hugh got older, he started sleeping in later and James and I could have some quiet time together before the annual circus would begin. Even though Hugh doesn’t have the same kind of Christmas meltdowns any more, he’s still a bit bossy when it comes to Christmas.

We still do only colored lights and round ornaments, and we hang our wreath on the inside of the door so that we can smell and enjoy it, per Hugh’s preference. We still let him sleep in a bit so that James and I can have some special time together on Christmas morning. We’ve dispensed with stockings years ago but we do still take some coffee and a pastry in by the tree and have those while James and I exchange our gifts to each other.

Later when Hugh gets up, he may open a few things, or he may leave all of his gifts until much later in the day. We don’t put presents under the tree until Christmas morning because otherwise, Hugh would open them all early — including the ones that aren’t even for him.

He loves to look at the wrapped gifts ringing the tree, and so only when he’s had his fill of that vignette will he begin to actually open them. It’s actually better to do a few at a time anyhow because Hugh does tend to still get a bit overwhelmed, both nothing like it used to be when he was younger.

Tonight we are planning to follow James’ family Christmas Eve tradition and eat tamales with his relatives who live nearby. It will still be a relatively small celebration, with just 6 of us, but it should be fun. We like to tell funny stories about Christmases past and some of the people in our respective families who aren’t in attendance.

Tomorrow morning, James and I will get up and have our regular coffee and pastries by the tree. We’ve decided not to exchange gifts this year, but we will still love having that time together with our regular holiday ritual before anyone else is around.

A bit later, we’ll wake Hugh up and see how it goes with him. Some years he won’t even come downstairs until nearly lunchtime, but at this point in our lives, we’re all about just rolling with it.

At 11:30, the relatives from last night will come back for Christmas morning brunch, a new tradition that we’re starting. James has made a wonderful breakfast strata with spinach and gruyere cheese and will have Mimosa’s and fruit. We’ll exchange gifts with that part of the family, and they’ll hang out for few hours before heading home.

Sometime during the day, I’ll exchange Christmas greetings with my other partner Nat, and we’ll have a brief chat before returning to our respective families and celebrations. Last year he sent me a photo of his gang all in matching pajama bottoms, and I sent him one of me wearing a gaudy Christmas sweater.

I’ll also phone my mom sometime during the day. She’s not in good enough health right now to fly to join us but has some good friends who are happy to include her in their celebration. My dad and brother both passed away many years ago, and I wouldn’t want her to be alone. Trying to have Christmas for Hugh, not at his own house is just not an option.

At this point in our lives, James and I like to keep things simple, except for the food, which is a little bit fancy. Our neighbors have invited us over to their open house after they go to church, but although we appreciate the gesture, it’s not something that interests us.

Keeping track of Hugh in an unfamiliar setting, and making sure that he’s doing alright while trying to make small talk with neighbors I don’t know that well is not my idea of a fun or relaxing event. Some other friends invited us to their annual tamale and tequila party, but we’ve declined that for the same reasons. It was nice of them to ask but we really prefer having a quiet and low key Christmas celebration with our immediate family.

The presents are wrapped, the food is prepared, and we’re just waiting on the family to arrive to begin making some more memories together. I think it’s time for me to have a festive drink and listen to some carols — at least until Hugh comes down and shuts them off.

Not all of our memories are going to be the Norman Rockwell kind, but I’m OK with that. We’ve done things to help create the kind of Christmas that we want and that’s all that we can do.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays 🎄❄️

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Dispelling cultural myths with research-driven stories. My favorite word is “specious.” Not fragile like a flower; fragile like a bomb! Twitter @ElleBeau

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