The eighth day after Christmas, before they could suspect I bundled up the… Eight maids a-milking Nine ladies dancing Ten lords a-leaping Eleven pipers piping Twelve drummers drumming
(Well, actually, I kept one of the drummers) And sent them back collect
I wrote my true love we are through love And I said in so many words Furthermore your Christmas gifts were for the birds
– The Twelve Days After Christmas, by Frederick Silver
My earliest memories revolve around my grandmother’s dining table. Laughing aunts and uncles and cousins would sit around the table talking as loudly with their hands as they did with their voices. Some nights the Canasta cards were brought out, other nights the game was Pinochle or for us non-cardplayers, Scrabble was the game of choice. Inevitably though, whether there were two people at that table or twelve, my grandmother would announce that she wanted a ‘little something.’
Invariably that ‘little something’ would be dessert.
And more often than not, the dessert would be an Entenmann’s coffeecake. The kind with a crumb topping and pastry cheese filling. That taste, slightly metallic from the foil tray, but always just enough sweetness to temper the strongest of coffees (or the brattiest of little girls) was the taste of my childhood. I remember it as strongly as I do my grandfather’s raisin bread or my grandmother’s meatballs or her recipe for pasta e fagiolli, which, by the way, is nothing like the swill they serve at the Olive Garden.
For Christmas this year, my friend Fran in Massachusetts sent me not one, not two, but three Entenmann’s Cheese-filled Crumb Coffee Cakes. Two immediately went into the freezer, to be saved until I just can’t stand it anymore. The third, we cut into almost immediately. Even my mother, who doesn’t eat carbs (she says), couldn’t resist the siren call of this coffee cake.
You see, they don’t sell it in my part of Texas. Believe me, I’ve looked. And even in California, it was a rare thing to find.
They say you can’t go home again, but sometimes, home can come to you, and when it does, it’s packaged in a white and blue box.
The sixth day after Christmas, the six laying geese wouldn’t lay I gave the whole darn gaggle to the A.S.P.C.A On the seventh day, what a mess I found all seven of the swimming swans had drowned My true love, my true love, my true love gave to me
– The Twelve Days After Christmas, by Frederick Silver
Last night, lying in the too-hard bed in the Bossier City Hilton I heard two recurring sounds: my husband’s snoring (like many men, Fuzzy can fall asleep anywhere, even if he’s not actually tired), and train whistles.
After nudging my husband to make him roll over (and therefore stop snoring), I listened to the trains a while longer.
Train whistles never sound anything but mournful. My friend Stonefish says it’s just the physics of sound, but I think it’s more. I think there’s a romanticism associated with trains that never quite leaves us.
At least, that’s true in my family.
Some of my earliest memories involve setting up model trains – HO scale – with my grandfather, creating circuits of track on the sculptured red carpet of the living room, and using the controls to make them go forward and backward. Later, I would have access to a train room, with a high trestle and a low trestle and tiny towns made of cardboard and paint, and even a fake river to cross over via a swinging bridge.
As I grew older I began to appreciate real trains. I remember a really old train I rode with my grandparents, somewhere in rural Massachusetts one summer, when we were visiting my aunt – the seats were reversible, and there was a water fountain in the back of each car with a dispenser of paper drinking cones, and we were practically the only people on it. I was under ten, and to my young self, that ride was as magical as the Hogwarts Express.
And then there was the Georgetown Loop – a narrow gauge railroad in Colorado. We lived there when it opened as a tourist attraction in the 70’s and I loved to sit in the top of the caboose with my legs dangling over the side. (There’s a name for that seat, but I don’t remember it.)
Trains remain part of my life. I have some antique toy train cars in my writing room, and I have a model of the Hogwarts Express that is meant to go around my Christmas tree, but somehow never manages to do so (well, not in years). I’m not sure I’ll ever fall out of love with trains, but I’m equally certain I’ll always think their whistles sound like someone crying in the night.
The third day after Christmas, my Mother caught the croup I had to use the three French Hens to make some chicken soup The four calling birds were a big mistake for their language was obscene The five golden rings were completely fake and they turned my fingers green.
– The Twelve Days After Christmas, by Frederick Silver
I’m writing this tonight from the Hilton Garden Inn in Bossier City, Louisiana. We drove here earlier today so Mom could see her older sister for the first time since last October, and I got a suite for us plus a room for my mother (because none of us were willing to sleep on a sofa bed), but since we’re not staying in a casino, the rooms were really reasonable, and it’s only for one night. Why a suite? Because Mom is allergic to cats, and my aunt has cats, so having a suite meant after we left the restaurant (Gibbons – great food; reasonable prices) we had an allergen-free place to hang out and visit for a bit.
I had a pot of coffee sent to the room (literally, they sent an urn) and we shared one enormous slice of cheesecake, and it was a nice way to catch up without anyone having to wash a dish. I gave my aunt and uncle and cousin some Dude, Sweet Chocolate, which is possibly the best chocolate on Earth, and they gave us local coffee and biscotti, made by the people in the care home where my cousin is a nurse.
We’re meeting for brunch tomorrow, at a place we went to twice when we were here last year, and then heading home. Mom leaves for her home in La Paz, BCS, Mexico on Sunday morning, and I plan to spend Sunday sleeping and cuddling dogs.
For now, though, we’re in Louisiana, and we’re such wild people at at 10:30 at night on a weekend, all I want to do is shower and sleep.
The second day after Christmas I pulled on the old rubber gloves And very gently wrung the necks Of both the turtle-doves My true love My true love My true love gave to me.
– The Twelve Days After Christmas, by Frederick Silver
I’m not really a drinker. I have Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, which is autoimmune hypothyroid, and alcohol doesn’t mix well with Synthroid. One or two glasses of wine and I’m sleepy. When I had pneumonia earlier this month, my doctor asked me if I wanted cough medicine, but she knows I’m not fond of narcotics, and honestly I didn’t have much of a cough. I told her I was having hot toddies before bed, and she asked for my recipe, then said, “Truly, that’s healthier than codeine, so if it’s working for you, do that.”
And I did.
I like wine, even though I don’t drink a lot of it, and I like the occasional beer, but one of my favorite things to drink to take the edge off is something that was introduced to me at a Christmas party in Mexico: Sheridan’s.
Sheridan’s is an Irish whiskey-based liqueur. It comes in a double bottle that’s really two bottles fused together in a sort of abstract swan-shape. The bigger side is coffee-flavored whiskey, and the smaller side is a white chocolate liqueur, and when you pour it, you tilt the glass so it forms a layered drink like coffee with cream on top. It’s a little bit sweet, and a little bit like Bailey’s but also not at all like it.
And you can’t buy it in the states.
So every time I visit my mother in Mexico, I make sure to have enough pesos leftover to buy a bottle of Sheridan’s and a bottle of really good Tequila at the duty-free store in the Cabo airport. I prefer to use pesos because they give you a discount for using cash, but it’s also a good way to burn leftover pesos.
This year, mom came to me, so I paypal’d her the money to buy the Sheridan’s – I didn’t want to make her carry Tequila also.
I’m just finishing the bottle I bought on my last visit to Mexico, and the new one won’t be opened for a while.
But since I was introduced to it at Christmas, I consider it a holiday tradition, as much as eggnog is here in the US and rompope is in Mexico.
Harmony surveyed her underwater domain and used her tailfin to push herself backward so she could see the very top of her tree.
Oh, it wasn’t a decorated pine, like the dry-landers had. She’d always thought pine was what you did when you missed someone so much that your heart hurt, the way she did when Oskar wasn’t able to visit her for long stretches of time.
Rather, her Christmas tree was a living kelp plant she’d coaxed into the shape of a tall triangle, then adorned with shells and sea glass, and – with a bit of bribery – even a sea star at the top (actually a family of them that she fed well with krill and brine shrimp.)
Studying her work, Harmony moved a shell one level higher and replaced it with a piece of blue sea glass. Blue and red were her favorites, and they were also the rarest colors. She’d heard the humans on the beach make similar comments, which is why she was certain Oskar would appreciate her gift to him.
Oh, the thunder god she’d been in love with for half of forever didn’t really celebrate Christmas the way her kind did. Rather, he observed the winter solstice and the way it marked the end of the increasing darkness in his world. But he brought her gifts every time they met, and she was all too aware that she had little to offer.
A great boom that was more a feeling than a sound rocked Harmony’s cave, and she grinned. Gathering the woven bag that held the gift, she swam out of her home, and up to the surface.
Her lover, her Oskar, was waiting for her on an ice floe just big enough for two, and he was smiling. “Here you are, my breath-and-blood. Here you are. Here I am. Is full moon. Is solstice. You ask. I come.”
Harmony reached up and allowed the burly rainmaker to hoist her from the water. As always, their floating meeting place was covered in thick furs, and as her tail split into legs, he wrapped her in the warm pelts. “It’s a special day in my world,” she told him. “I brought you a gift.”
“You are gift,” he countered.
“That’s sweet, but I have a different gift, something to share with your loved ones. Hold out your hands.”
He did as she bade, and she poured out the contents of her bag – red and blue sea glass – letting the pieces flow over his fingers. “We decorate with this,” she explained. “I thought…”
But she never finished her thought because Oskar was laughing. “Red and blue…” he said. “My favorite. Red for the lightning fire and blue for the water. Is brilliant. Is us.”
Harmony smiled. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, it is.” Then she tickled Oskar under his beard. “You always sing for me. This time, it’s my turn.” And she launched into another chorus of her favorite holiday song: Jingle Shells.
My friend Nuchtchas has been talking about her holiday traditions as part of her audio advent project, and one of her recent topics was stockings. She asked the rest of us to share pictures of our Christmas stockings, but we haven’t even begun to decorate this year. Partly that’s because I’m just not feeling terribly Christmassy, but mostly it’s because we’re waiting til my mother is here with us, so she can participate.
So, the picture I’ve provided is of last year’s Christmas stockings. Two fuzzy stockings we bought at Target several years ago and decorated (badly) ourselves. These are the stockings that Fuzzy and I have used throughout our time in Texas – about fourteen years – but I can’t remember exactly when we got them.
I don’t remember my earliest Christmas stockings. I remember getting gum and small toys, and from about the age of nine on, a small wheel of brie. But I don’t remember the stockings themselves, except that my mother’s first husband’s mother knitted them for the three of us right after mom got married, but misspelled my name, so for years I had a love-hate relationship with it.
More recently, okay, more like ten years ago, we bought three or four stockings at Cracker Barrel when I knew I’d be hosting Christmas for my parents and my aunt. These are brightly colored with penguins, snowmen and a Santa Claus figure on them. These are our guest stockings, the ones we fill for whomever is spending Christmas with us in any given year.
But this year is different.
This year I bought new stockings.
This year, I’m trying to retain our most important family traditions, but alter them enough that the absence of my stepfather isn’t felt so keenly. The penguin stocking was always his when he visited. I can’t bear to see it right now.
Instead, I have three red and white knitted stockings waiting to be hung. They’re all slightly different, but they came in a set, and I think they’ll work nicely.
As for the not-decorating thing… when I was a kid we almost never decorated until around this part of December, after school was out for the holidays. While I have decorated as early as Thanksgiving once in a while, I typically prefer to wait a week or two into the month. We leave our tree and lights up until Epiphany, and I’d get sick of it all if I had it around for five or six weeks instead of two or three.
In the years we went to Mexico, I’d still decorate, partly because we’d be home and entertaining friends for part of the season, and partly because coming home a few days before New Year’s to an undecorated house is pretty depressing.
In Mexico, as I’ve already talked about this year, we also have furry stockings that we decorated on a visit many years ago.
And aside from that, my only real memory of stockings is one time when I was seven or eight that I was delighted by the fact that I had so much stuff in my stocking that it had fallen from where it was hanging. (I’m pretty sure I commented that my mother’s was kind of limp. As kids do.)
“Tell me a story, Daddy?” Eleven-year-old Elizabeth was sprawled on the carpeted floor beneath the Christmas tree. When the family lived aboard her father’s spaceship, the Cousteau, they had a holographic tree that held virtual copies of all the real ornaments. But now they were in their house on Centaurus, so the whole tree was real, and she loved to lie beneath it and breath in the piney scent.
Basil glanced across the room at his wife, and the pair shared a look. They knew their daughter would soon be too old to ask for stories, but it was Christmas Eve, and even a synthetic lifeform was willing to indulge his daughter during the holidays.
Still, he hesitated. Seasonal tales were not really in his oeuvre, and he knew the night was special to the organic members of his family.
“Do you mind if the story comes from me?” his wife asked, saving the night for all of them. “I have a family story that might appeal to you, Lizzie-Bee.”
The little girl rolled over and sat up, smoothing out her brand-new dress as she did so. “That would be acceptable,” she said, sounding uncannily like her father.
“Alright then.” Zoe put down the tablet she’d been reading from and centered herself by taking a sip from her mug of tea. “This story takes place many years before you were born, or before I was born, or before Gramma Emily was born. It’s older than Grampere. It’s even older than Nonna. In fact, it’s from Nonna’s, Nonna’s, Nonna’s Nonna. Or even a few generations before that.”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s about family, and Christmas, and space.”
“I wanna hear that story.”
Zoe smiled at her daughter. “Alright then, let’s take a deep breath—” and she drew in an exaggerated one “—and begin.”
December 24th, 1968 –
They could have gone to mass at the local church, as they always did. St. Agnes had been the family’s parish of choice for decades. It was an old building, formidable gray stone on the outside, but once you were inside the vestibule it was all wood and warmth, and the bulletin boards were hilarious, reminding you that there was still time for a turkey raffle, or that the scout troops earned money if you ate at Burger King through the first of the year.
But Uncle Giovanni – Nonna’s brother – also known as Father Pescatore – had been back in town after being sent to serve elsewhere, and a private family mass seemed appropriate. So, they’d set up an altar on the ironing board, and prayed for the people, and the world leaders, and the pope, and the world, and then they’d said a special prayer for the astronauts in space.
We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”
They watched the newscast and heard these men of science read words of faith, and they saw the camera feed of the men in the giant aluminum can hurtling toward the gray surface of the moon.
And maybe they thought about the way God exists in each of us as a spark of divine self-gift, or maybe they just went through the ritual out of habit. But no matter what they thought, their eyes were riveted on their tiny television screen, and their thoughts were in the stars.
Christmas Eve – 2269
The family continued to grow and change, but the one thing they all shared was a fascination with space. They watched as the first lunar orbit became the first lunar landing. They watched as Mars became the first planet to be populated entirely by robots, and then the first to host human colonists.
As space travel became something accessible to everyone, part of the family embraced the unknown, and joined the first colonization missions to Betelgeuse and Centaurus.
The latter planet was destined to become the family’s new home. They were Harrises now, instead of Morellis, having married and bred and married and bred through the ages, and their faith was not so formal as it had been a century before on Earth, but when the first church was planted in Beach Haven, they joined their community for Christmas Eve services.
“And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.”
Christmas Eve – 2368
“I don’t think that’s much of a story,” Elizabeth said.
“That’s because it’s not finished yet,” Zoe explained. “We’re going out, sweetie.”
Basil had left his chair while she’d been speaking, and now he offered his daughter her coat. “It is cold out tonight. You must dress warmly.” He assisted the child in putting on her winter gear, then repeated the process with his wife.
Together, Basil and Zoe guided the young girl through the front door. “We’re not taking the flitter?”
“Nope. We’re walking.”
The night air was cold, but it was also clear, and each star seemed to shimmer more brightly than the last. As they walked toward the center of town, first along the coast road, then turning east, away from the water, the small family was joined by friends and neighbors, all making the same short journey.
Our Lady of the Sea and Stars was as gray as the old stone church on Earth, but it was built of titanium from the hulls of the first colony ship, and its surface shimmered like a more delicate version of the starlight.
Almost the entire community gathered inside, and there were many greetings exchanged with Captain Harris and Ambassador Harris and all the oldest relatives gushed over Elizabeth, cooing over her advanced age – “Eleven? Wow! Who said you could get so old?”
As they took their seats, the little girl nudged her mother. “Church? Seriously? The end of the story is church?”
The congregation hushed as Mother Celeste entered with the processional and took her place on the altar. “Welcome friends,” she began. “About a hundred years ago, the members of this community came together in this building for our first Christmas Eve. We were blessed, then, to be in a new home. Since that time, our community has grown. The founding families have been joined by newer additions. But we still gather here, to share the same words, and sing the same songs, that people of Earth have been sharing and singing for generations.”
She paused and scanned the rows of pews, apparently meeting the eyes of each person seated there. “Before we begin, I’d like to share with you some other words. Words that aren’t part of the Christmas tradition, but are attached to it. They were read four hundred years ago by a group of men who were on one of the first journeys to Earth’s moon, and they’re from the Book of Genesis.”
She nodded to an unseen media technician, and after a moment, scratchy audio filled the green-garlanded and candle-scented space.
“And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called the Seas: and God saw that it was good.”
Elizabeth listened to the ages-old recording, and – at least for that moment in time – understood her mother’s message, and her father’s dedication to the Star Navy.
Later that night, with bedtime cocoa still staining her lips, she kissed each of her parents goodnight. “Merry Christmas,” she said. “I love you.”
Basil and Zoe replied that they loved her too, and would see her in the morning when they would discover what Santa might have brought.
“Did you know,” Basil asked, once he and Zoe were alone in front of their own crackling fire, “that the Apollo Eight recording would be shared?”
“I did,” Zoe admitted. “Mother Celeste is descended from one of the astronauts. She’s been waiting to share that audio clip since she moved here. She thinks her ancestor would have approved, and I think she’s right.”
“And the ironing board story?”
“Totally true,” she said, “I’ve heard Mom tell me about it only a thousand or so times.”
And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.
Notes: The audio clip from the Apollo 8 mission features the voices of William Anders, James Lovell, and Frank Borman. The mass on the ironing board was a memory shared by my mother earlier tonight. You see, my great-uncle Eugene died last night. He was a Franciscan priest, and he was old and sick, so his death is a release in many ways. I don’t have any specific memories of him, except that he was kind and funny, but I wanted to mark his passing and mom’s story gave me the idea.
Out of habit, Jane tossed her keys onto the small table in the entry of her house, forgetting that they might mar the antique surface as they slid across the top. This table, new to her, had been salvaged from her grandmother’s house just before her aunts and cousins had arrived to haggle over the remnants of the old woman’s life.
Grams, as she had called her grandmother for as long as she’d known how to talk, had called the piece of blonde furniture a telephone table, and indeed, it did have a small drawer just large enough to hold a few pencils, an address book, and a scratch pad, even though it hadn’t played host to an actual telephone in more years than Jane cared to count.
As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, Jane moved through her customary evening routine. Coat on the hook by the door, shoes at the edge of the bench, purse slung over its arm. She didn’t bother turning on any lights, but as she padded in stockinged feet across the cold tile floor, she did pause to plug the Christmas tree.
Barely five feet tall, the tree stood in the center of the bay window that gave Jane’s living room much of its charm. She’d meant to hire someone to hang outside lights on the window, but had never gotten around to it, so the tree was the lone representative of Christmas, save for the four empty stockings hanging from the mantle. One was hers, of course, and one would hold the dog’s annual treat, but the other two were for her parents, even though they had made it clear they weren’t doing Christmas that year.
“We can finally afford to bask on the beach in Mexico, Janie,” her mother had said. “You’re almost forty. You don’t need us to have a good holiday.”
Except she did.
Resisting the urge to curl up on the couch and call it a night, Jane went to put sneakers on and release her dog from his crate, accepting the happy sloppy kisses the aging Airedale offered. “Walkies?” she asked the curly-haired canine, who was absolutely on board with that suggestion. He cooperated while she put his harness on, but once the final snap had been clicked into place, he was a blur of frenetic energy once again. “Hang on, Winston,” she coaxed, but it was useless.
Just at the bottom of the porch stairs, Jane and Winston came to a sudden halt. “Sorry,” she said to the man she’d nearly crashed into. “Are you looking for an address?”
“Sort of,” he said. “I just moved into the house across the street, and my daughter – she’s ten – says I have to introduce myself to all the neighbors.”
Jane grinned. “Well, tell your daughter she’s very wise. I’m Jane, by the way, and this is Winston.”
“Oh, I’m Vince. Vincent really, but…”
“Welcome to the neighborhood, Vince.” She scanned the block. “Your daughter isn’t with you?”
“Ah, no,” he said. “She’s with her Mom, actually, until after the holiday. It’s just me this year.”
Something in his expression, in his posture, resonated with Jane. “Listen,” she said. “I’m alone this year, too, but I have a turkey breast I was going to heat. Why don’t you join me?”
“Seriously?” Vince seemed surprised by the offer.
“Well, my dog seems to like you, and Winston is an excellent judge of character.” It was true. The dog had plotzed on the sidewalk and was laying across both humans’ feet.
Vince reached down to give head fusses to the dog. “Well, who am I to argue with such a wise creature. What can I bring?”
“Salad? Cranberries? Whatever you like.”
“I can do that,” he said. “Around two on Christmas Day?”
“Sounds like a plan,” Jane agreed.
She continued on her walk and didn’t even complain when Winston had to pee on every signpost and fire hydrant, instead of just some of them. Maybe Vince would become a friend, and maybe he would just be a good neighbor, but either way, she’d have company for the holiday, and who knew? Maybe in a year or two she’d be hosting an annual gathering of Holiday Orphans.
After the walkies and dinner for both herself and Winston, Jane curled up on her couch with a book and a mug of tea. The lights on the other houses were reflected in her window, and for a change the silence of her house – punctuated only by the soothing sounds of her sleeping dog – felt cozy instead of constricting.
The bonfire is warm and the salt pines shelter us from the wind. We’re given wine and cheese, chicken mole and freshly pressed corn tortillas. The food is simple, but the starry sky is glorious, and if we strain, we can hear the water lapping at the shore.
It is the first night of our first Christmas trip to Mexico.
Christmas Eve, we join other members of the community where my parents now live. We drink homemade Rompope which is sort of like really lethal eggnog, and also nothing like it. It’s made with rum and stirred with stalks of sugar cane. When we’re buzzed enough, we go caroling through the sandy streets, but the entire group only knows two songs: Jingle Bells – which we sing in English – and Silent Night – which we sing in English and Spanish.
Noche de paz, noche de amor,
Todo duerme alrededor,
Sólo velan en la oscuridad
Los pastores que en el campo están;
Y la estrella de Belén
Y la estrella de Belén.
The years pass and our visits to Mexico change. Instead of drunken caroling we invite some of the post-doc students my stepfather is working with to join our family celebrations. One of them, an Italian woman of roughly my age, brings her guitar.
We spend Christmas Eve decorating cheap felt stockings with puffy paints, while we listen to the Lessons and Carols service from England streaming over the speakers of an ancient HP laptop, too kludgy to be used as anything but a music player.
Our repertoire of carols expands by one: Happy Christmas, War is Over. Our new Italian friend strums her guitar while we all sing along. The next morning, though skeptical, she comes to breakfast in her pajamas and sits on the floor just like the rest of us as we open presents. The youngest of us is in our thirties, but we are happy and the coffee is hot, and we laugh like children.
Noche de paz, noche de amor;
Todo duerme alrededor;
sobre el Santo Niñito Jesús
Una estrella esparce su luz,
Brilla sobre el Rey,
Brilla sobre el Rey.
We miss a few Mexican Christmases, hosting some here in our own home in Texas, and visiting Fuzzy’s family for others. In the years we’re not together Fuzzy and I go to midnight mass at the local Episcopal church, which actually begins at ten-thirty. Some years there is carol singing before the formal service, but even when there isn’t, we pass the flame from hand to hand in the darkened church, and somehow, the simple act of voices raised in song is both mysterious and magical.
We didn’t know our last Christmas in Mexico would be the last Christmas. We are welcomed into my parents’ friends’ homes for a midnight dinner on Christmas eve, and a boozy brunch on Christmas day, and wherever we go, people wish us Felices Fiestas – Happy Holidays.
That last Christmas, I fry latkes, brought to mark my stepfather’s Jewish heritage, and we eat them with smoked salmon and leftover cranberry sauce. The lights twinkle across the bay. The sound of the wind makes us almost believe it’s cold outside, and we finish the evening reading and sipping tea and talking.
Noche de paz, noche de amor
Todo duerme alrededor
Fieles velando allí en Belén
Los pastores, la Madre también
Y la estrella de paz,
y la estrella de paz.
My stepfather left this world in July, and my mother has their house in Mexico listed for sale. She’s due here in a week, and we’ve waited to decorate until she gets here. Mostly, we don’t really feel like Christmas – or I didn’t, but then today in the chocolate shop I saw truffles made with mole and as we walked back to the car with our purchases, I felt like maybe Christmas was coming this year, after all.
Every year I write an open letter to you in my blog, because I feel like a child-free house doesn’t need the special magic of a personal visit in exchange for warm milk and cold cookies. While you still haven’t managed to deliver on that pony – come on, Santa, I’ll be fifty in two years! – what I’ve received in exchange for my letters is hardly pittance. They bring me clarity of thought and a direction for the coming year, among other things.
As usual, I’m not asking for material goods this year, because one of the most important lessons you’ve taught me over the years is that the most important gifts don’t come in boxes.
Santa, it would be easy to ask for enlightenment. We’re doing so many horrible things to the environment, the economy, each other… If there’s one area where humans excel it’s in forgetting – even ignoring – the greater good. And it’s not like I don’t want an end to unsafe drinking water, chunky air, people rationing their medications because they can’t afford refills, or toxic masculinity, but… those are big picture, and this year, my wish is a little smaller.
So many of my friends this year are making posts and comments about how they wish the holidays didn’t have to be so stressful and commercial, or how things were more fun when they had money. And I get it, I do, because I’ve succumbed to that push to be the perfect host and felt the pang of not being able to get my husband the Big Thing he really wants or telling him not to get me the Big Thing I really want.
We’re doing okay this year, but I’m not working for money right now, so even at our house things are tighter than I wish them to be.
I’m not a parent, as you know, Santa, but I was a child of a single mother during the early part of my life. Mom and I have had many conversations about how she felt guilty for the times she had to work on Christmas Eve, or my birthday. Similarly, I was never the kid who got the name-brand sneakers or tech. Seventh grade, my sneakers were from the store that is now Big Lots. They looked like Nikes, but the swoosh was upside down. My first Walkman-type thing (yeah, I’m that old) was something we bought for $20 at a swap meet. It lasted for years though, and worked perfectly well, even if it wasn’t sleek and sexy.
And the thing is, those aren’t the things I focus on. Mostly, those aren’t even the things I remember. I remember the way mom and I would make cocoa and eat pfeffernusse cookies while decorating our four-foot-tall artificial tree, or that when having personalized everything was in vogue, she found a stamp with my name on it, and stamped sweatshirts and notebooks and a bunch of other stuff.
I may have never had the pink, plastic Barbie dreamhouse, but my dolls were decked in handmade couture from my mother’s sewing room. On the other hand, until I was eighteen, I got packages of cute underwear from my mother or grandmother every year. Now? I’d kill to not have to pay $35 for five pairs of panties. And truly, the years when we agreed to $20 limits and stocking-stuffers only were some of my favorite Christmases, because it forced us to be creative. And I say this as the least crafty person in the world.
Look, we all want that perfect Hallmark holiday with snow that doesn’t make you cold or wet and food that seems to spring forth from the kitchen with no effort (or mess), but the reality is that life is messy, and Hallmark literally uses a checklist when they churn out those holiday movies.
And yeah, Christmas is more fun when you can be extravagant. But that doesn’t mean it’s more meaningful.
I can’t remember most of the gifts I’ve received over the years, but I remember the way our plastic tree somehow transforms into something magical when the last ornament has been placed. I remember getting a new nightgown for Christmas eve almost every year. I remember bundling up and getting in the car to drive around and look at lights, and then come home for cocoa.
We rarely had a ton of family around, even after my mother and Ira got married. Instead, we’d have a festive meal, watch something special on tv, and maybe play a board game. Most years, our gifts were books and pens and the afore-mentioned underwear, and bath stuff. Sure, there would be one big thing, but even that was never the coolest, greatest, hottest thing on sale.
As I recently reminded a friend, five-year-old Laura Ingalls was thrilled when her Christmas presents one year were a tin cup, an orange, a penny, and a stick of candy. (I think it’s only when you re-read the Little House books as an adult that you realize how poor that family really was.) But even today, most little kids are more excited about the box their super-awesome-toy came in, than they are the toy itself.
So, Santa, this is what I’m asking for this year. I’m asking you to use your magical staff and sprinkle some gentle cheer over everyone. I’d love it if you eliminated stress, but since that’s not likely, how about a reminder that, just as no one knows the truth of any relationship except the people in it, no one knows the truth of your holiday practices except the people you choose to include.
Remind us, Santa, that it’s okay to simplify. It’s okay not to have a cookie-cutter Christmas. It’s okay to focus on meaning and caution against mass consumerism. And Christmas is an excellent time to embrace the concept of no-money fun.
Can you sing? Go caroling through your neighborhood (my friends and I did this in high school and one family invited us in to sing for about half an hour). Can you bake? Give someone the gift of something homemade – or invite them into your kitchen and make something together. Can you sew? You don’t necessarily have to make anything big. One year, I gave a friend the gift of an hour of replacing buttons on shirts. This year, I’d really love it if someone came to help me clean out my closet.
Maybe it’s because we’re experiencing our first holiday season without either of my husband’s parents and without my stepfather, but I feel like it’s important to remember that memories are way more important than the things we buy with money. Give us a hand with that reminder, won’t you, Santa?
Oh, and if you could work on the whole peace, economic stability, and social justice for all thing, as well, I promise to stop harassing you about the pony.