Celebrating the holidays has always been a little problematic for me.
I grew up in a family where Thanksgiving and Christmas were dominated by my grandmother and her wonderful cooking. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I discovered how much my mother hated these gatherings, due in part, no doubt, to her ongoing internal battle with food–something she passed on to her children, I’m sad to say.
To me, however, the holidays meant food in such abundance and flavors that we never got at home: turkey with all the fixings, ham, mashed potatoes, yams, succotash, collards, and green bean casseroles. Yeast rolls and cornbread. Sausage balls and stuffing. And the desserts! Pumpkin, lemon meringue, chocolate pies, applesauce cake, pound cake, or sour cream cake–take your pick. Not “oh, we’ll have lemon pie one year and pumpkin the next.” No, ALL the desserts mentioned on the same table with the entire extended family there to enjoy it. Everyone came home for the holidays at my grandmother’s house. Everyone.
Because of the tremendous volume of food made, we got bundles of leftovers to take home with us, spreading the joy for two or three days after the holiday was over.
When my grandparents died, there was no one to pick up the mantel of cooking and baking. My mother thought if a little heat was good a lot was better, and given her own food sensitivities (which I’ve inherited, darn it), she stripped most recipes of all seasoning and flavor.
I tried to cook for the family when we got together for the holidays, but my own weak skill set was hampered by the lack of proper cookware–a fact I didn’t realize until I discovered what a difference the right pots and pans could make.
It didn’t help that early in my career, as a single woman with no children, my employers scheduled me to work every holiday under the assumption I didn’t need to celebrate myself.
Decorating seemed pointless–when you live alone, you never drive up to your home and see the welcoming lights of Christmas decorations gleaming through your windows. Not to mention all the work of putting them up, only to have to take them down in a few weeks. Then there was the fact my dog–the first one that was all mine and not a family pet–had this bizarre quirk where she would remove the string of lights from the tree… and pop every bulb. She never touched anything else, but I would come home to find the tree and ornaments in place, and the string of lights on the floor surrounded by bits of broken glass. Weird, right?
She was Practically Perfect in all other respects, however, so I just learned not to put up decorations.
Eventually, I realized that if I wanted to experience the magic and joy of the holidays, I would have to come up with my own traditions. This usually took the place of watching various holiday movies–mostly the old black-and-white classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life and Christmas in Connecticut. I’d watched these movies on the AMC channel at my grandmother’s house, and they were part of my Christmas memories, along with the animated television specials: How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Oh! And it wasn’t Christmas unless I watched A Christmas Carol in some version, usually with the Muppets (which is the best, IMHO). I listened to Bing Crosby, and in a seasonally driven burst of domesticity, I baked.
After I got married, my husband and I developed our own traditions. He has an advent candle he likes to light each year, and we started putting up a tree again. Neither one of us are huge decorators, and while he probably thinks my taste in holiday movies is dreadful, he cheerfully suffers through my desire to watch them. We don’t go crazy with gifts either, but since we’re both big readers, Christmas usually means a nice cache of books to read though the winter.
This year, because of the pandemic and our family’s decision to split households for safety reasons, once again, I’ve been thrown back to those early days as a young professional when I worked straight through the holidays with only the official day off itself. I find myself struggling to find the Christmas spirit this year–I mean, who isn’t?
I realized the other day, this wasn’t a new phenomenon, however. It’s been quite a few years since I had the time or energy for Christmas. There always seems to be more work before and after a holiday to make up for taking the day off. Somehow there is never enough time to watch my favorite movies, and various determinations to count calories or avoid gluten has cut into my seasonal baking. (It’s not that eating gluten will kill me. It’s just that I only seem to be able to tolerate a small amount these days, and since when has anyone been able to stop with one Snickerdoodle?)
This year, in deference to pandemic-driven anxiety, I’ve been watching new-to-me Christmas movies on Netflix: The Princess Switch, A Christmas Prince, and the even earlier A Princess for Christmas. There’s a certain kind of appeal to the picture-perfect winter settings in mythical kingdoms where all needs are met because there is an insane amount of wealth in the background. The heroines are often hapless but brave, the heroes wealthy and in need of lightening up. It occurred to me while watching yet another scene where the True Meaning of Christmas had nothing to do with the limitless credit cards but the people you spend it with that a) money helps and b) … people weren’t going to get to be with their families this year.
I have to tell you, instead of feeling comforted by these light movies, I felt sad. I understood why people feel they MUST family during the holidays, even when every recommendation is to stay home and not cross households. I got it because sitting on your couch watching fluffy holiday movies with the dogs feels very lonely when there are people you love that you wish were there. And yet, if we love our families, staying apart this year is exactly what we have to do.
It’s as if the Whos in Whoville woke on Christmas morning without decorations, and presents and roast beast—and without each other too. After living on my own for so long, I’d become accustomed to the level of comfort living with a family of your own choosing can bring.
Suddenly, for me, This Would Not Do.
I didn’t go inside. We didn’t throw caution to the winds and break our self-imposed separation of households. We sat outside, wearing masks, speaking of nothing consequential and at the same time everything that was important. Because Christmas really isn’t about palaces in Aldovia or switching places with someone in order to see how the other half lives. Christmas can come without ribbons. It comes without tags. It comes without packages, boxes or bags.
It’s what we make of it.