Like so many things in my life, I have a love-hate relationship with Christmas. When I was a child I got so excited about it that I found myself unable to sleep not just on Christmas Eve but for a full week prior. I’m not sure why I experienced such anticipation. I waited, with baited breath, for the JC Penney Christmas catalog to show up in the mailbox every November. I spent days pouring over each page and laboring, tirelessly, to craft the most comprehensive Christmas list – complete with prices and page numbers. In hindsight and now having lived through being a parent at Christmas myself, I imagine this unswerving focus probably intimidated the fuck out of my parents. That was probably why they were particularly cranky in the days leading up to Christmas. The financial burdens of a traditional American Christmas (gifts, tree, food, etc.) combined with the expanded, winter-break presence of their children sent them into full-blown-stressed-out-holiday-hell. Yeah. So they were even less warm & fuzzy than normal. When my siblings and I became teenagers, Christmastime was even more volatile. Raging hormones and self-centeredness are hard enough for parents to deal with without the added pressures of the crown jewel of commercialism. Screaming, yelling, slamming doors, tear-stained faces, and stuffy noses red enough to compete with Rudolph appeared each year, every year, along with the evergreen tree and cheerful décor. I hated Christmas as a teen. I longed for the happy family gatherings I saw on each “special Christmas episode” of my favorite T.V. shows.
Once I got married and had a family of my own, I was committed to making Christmas a magical time for my children. The excitement and anticipation for Christmas that I’d felt as a child returned. I eagerly fueled the Yuletide fantasies of my daughters by insisting that we create the kind of Christmas memories I’d grown up watching on television and in movies. I helped them write and mail a letter to Santa each year. We made the annual pilgrimage to the mall to “visit Santa.” We baked Christmas cookies. We drove around town “ooooing” and “aaahing” over neighborhood Christmas light displays. We bundled up and braved the harsh West Michigan winter elements to see the mother-of-all holiday light displays that the area zoo puts up each year. We sipped hot chocolate and strolled down Candy Cane Lane in our downtown park through gently falling snow. We went to a Christmas tree farm and took a hayride out to cut down a fresh tree each year. One year I even used fireplace ashes to make Santa’s boot-shaped footprints on the carpet. I saved money all year long in a “Christmas Club” account to give my girls the Christmas of their dreams each year. As you can see, I took “Santa Clausing” very seriously. The year I got divorced and moved in with my parents, I still tried to make Christmas special. And since my parents enjoyed being grandparents way more than they ever liked being parents, happily, they were willing to help me. Truth be told, I’m pretty sure they loved seeing the joy in the eyes of their grandkids on Christmas morning even more than I did.
I remarried when the girls were still school-aged. My current husband has always worked in retail and had become a bit desensitized to the holidays when we met. He had also been married to a woman that didn’t celebrate holidays and he shared a daughter with her. Those factors, combined with a contentious relationship with his family, made celebrating Christmas less than enjoyable for him. I was undeterred by his lack of enthusiasm and pressed him to forge Christmas traditions for our newly blended family. After a few years, we found our identity as a family, and our Christmas celebrations gradually took shape. Many happy memories were made. Over the years our family has weathered losses that have altered some of our traditions. The death of my oldest daughter had a monumental effect on every aspect of our lives and had a lasting impact on many of those traditions – the greatest being a deepened appreciation for them. The year after my daughter’s death, my stepdaughter decided that, because of her faith, she didn’t want to celebrate holidays anymore. My husband cut ties with his family the year after that. A couple years later, my younger daughter went off to college nine hours away. She was always home for Christmas, but the schedule demands of the job she was working meant her time with us was limited. Our holiday celebrations got smaller and smaller. Still, I soldiered on in my role as Santa just like the real St. Nick would.
Two years ago, my stepdaughter had a change of heart and came back to the holiday-celebrating fold. And though they couldn’t make it for Christmas Eve, my daughter and her partner planned to be home for Christmas Day. My dad made transportation arrangements so my mother could come from the nursing home and have Christmas dinner at my house. I was as giddy for Christmas as my girlhood self. No, it wasn’t everything I wanted. That would’ve been Christmas Eve dinner with everyone – both daughters, my daughter’s partner, my sister, my nephew, my mother, my father, and my husband; Midnight Mass with my husband, my daughter, and her partner; Christmas morning with the girls and stockings and presents and overnight French toast; and Christmas Day dinner with everyone all over again! Still, this Santa would take what she could get. And it was wonderful.
Since then, there seems to have been a slow downward-winding spiral. Last year, my stepdaughter was in a treatment facility at Christmastime. Well, actually, she hadn’t planned to celebrate the holiday again anyway. My daughter, who’d moved to Florida, planned to come home on a flight that arrived Christmas eve. Her partner had just lost her father, needed to drive to Arizona, and, obviously, could not come to Michigan for Christmas. My brother in-law had had an aneurism in the weeks leading up to Christmas and could not travel. Yes, it was a shit-show only the most resilient of Santas could salvage. Still, we had a nice Christmas Eve dinner with Mom and Dad at the nursing home. On Christmas morning my daughter, my husband, and I all opened gifts before enjoying some nice overnight French toast. My dad was delighted with the ipad my sister and I got him, and we had a nice dinner with him and my daughter. All in all, it was a pleasant time.
Santa’s patience this year was truly tested. My daughter could not get time-off to come home. My sister, who’s going through a messy divorce, was (understandably) unable to commit to any kind of event. Though she did plan on celebrating, my stepdaughter had to work on Christmas day, so we needed to move our “main event” to Christmas Eve. Oh, and by the way, this is probably the last Christmas she’ll be celebrating because she’s going back to her religion in the new-year. My dad wanted to reserve Christmas Eve for my sister “just in case.” Again, I remained committed to making happy family Christmas memories. It was particularly important to me because my stepdaughter’s fiancé would be spending the holiday away from his family in Peru. I wanted him, in particular, to have a nice Christmas. And it was nice. I guess this Santa shouldn’t complain since I have had much worse. Still, I missed my child terribly. It was the first time since she was born that we have been apart on Christmas.
Yes, I know that there are many parents who regularly spend the holidays…and birthdays…and anniversaries apart from their child/children for a variety of reasons, but, up to point in my life, I have not. I have particular sympathy for parents with a child in harm’s way, serving in our armed forces. Still, this Santa has never had to be without her only living child at Christmas before, and it was rough. In spite of my stepdaughter’s declaration that this was her last Christmas, a small part of me still hopes that next Christmas will be THE ONE – the Christmas I have always dreamed of – with everyone, altogether, under my roof celebrating. I am reminded of the movie “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” My husband has always likened my lofty holiday ambitions to those of main character Clark Griswold.
Clark Griswold: All my life I’ve just wanted to have a big family Christmas.
Ellen Griswold: (hesitantly looks at Clark and grasps his hand) It’s just how you build things up in your mind, Sparky. You set standards that no family event can ever live up to.
Clark: Now when have I ever done that?
Ellen: (gestures ‘thusly’) Parties, weddings, anniversaries, funerals, holidays,graduations…(trails off)
As I was cleaning the house on Christmas Eve, the two little neighbor girls came up the walk. They’d just come from Sunday Mass and were still clad in tights, church dresses, and patent leather Mary-Janes. I watched them walk gingerly up the snow-glazed drive, in those slippery soled shoes and bundled in Sunday dress coats, surrounded by swirling snowflakes. “You’ll go take those next door,” I heard the older one direct the younger as she motioned toward the home of my elderly neighbors. “My mom made you some cookies,” she said to me as she approached my door with a foil covered paper plate. “Thank you, honey. Merry Christmas!” I replied. “Merry Christmas,” she said with a pensive smile. My husband and I haven’t exactly been “good neighbors.” The polite term for people like us is “anti-social.” In actuality, the fact is…we’re assholes. We never went over to introduce ourselves when this sweet little family moved in. In fact, the only welcoming overtures we ever made were polite nods and waves while getting the mail or walking the dog. I first met the neighbor woman months after they moved in. She came with her daughters to sell Girl Scout cookies last spring. She introduced herself, but I’m such a dick that I don’t even remember her name. It’s Rachel – maybe. I asked the older girl if she went to the elementary school near our neighborhood. The mother replied that both girls went to one of the area Catholic schools. The girl told me she was in first grade. “Oh, I teach first grade,” I replied. “My husband is a teacher, too. He teaches at their school,” the woman said. I bought two boxes of Girl Scout cookies that day, to assuage my guilt for being such a shitty neighbor. I’m probably gonna send a thank-you card for the Christmas cookies and apologize for my failings as a neighbor.
The sight of those little girls coming up the driveway in the snow set off a cascade of emotions for me that day. They reminded me of my own daughters. It made me ache for a magical time that has long since passed. I sat at the dining room table, between bouts of cleaning, and cried. I couldn’t stop it from coming. “Clark Griswold wouldn’t be crying,” I laughed to myself as I tried to get it together. I somehow managed to finish all the things I needed to do – clean, cook, wrap. By the time my stepdaughter and her fiancé arrived, the melancholy had subsided, been folded up, and neatly tucked beneath my heaped pile of emotional baggage. We had a lovely evening. A long, long way from home and far from his own family, my stepdaughter’s fiancé seemed to appreciate our wish to make him feel at home and loved. An avid Star Wars fan, he was particularly delighted by the “talking” Chewbacca mask my husband chose as one of his gifts. My mother straight-up “threw down” on the beef tenderloin I prepared for Christmas Day dinner. I just wanted her to have some good, home cooked food for Christmas – the kind she can’t get at the nursing home. The fact that any Christmas might be her last is always at the front of my mind. So I want each one we get to spend with her to be special. That’s what it’s all about to me. See? Me. Santa. Clark Griswold. We all just want to see smiles, hear laughter, and make magic! We just want to be able to say, when all is said and done, in the words of Clark Griswold, “I did it!”