My mom cancelled Christmas around 1978. Her decision was not triggered by any conspiracy theory or grand epiphany. There was no earth-shattering shift in her religious or political orientation…just a simple announcement. “We will not be having Christmas this year. I cannot do it. I simply don’t have the money…” Oh, but it would not be so simple after all…
I remember feeling bewildered. It just didn’t seem right. You meant to tell me that Christmas be was no bigger than my mother’s hardship. I mean it was Christmas after all. Wasn’t it Santa who found his way around the world delivering gifts to all the boys and girls on the “good” list, even if they did not have a fireplace? Didn’t the three Moorish kings find the baby Jesus in a manger bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh? How was it that there was no room in all of that prosperity and good will for my baby brother and me to be included in the festivities?
We wound up with a tiny tabletop tree and a cable knit sweater each that year. I was relieved, somehow. At least, there was something. It was lightyears from the massive Christmas celebrations we enjoyed before my father left the family, for good. The stunning 8 ft tall tree with spray snow, tinsel, lights and enough gifts to cover half the basement floor. Evidence of their post-civil rights era prosperity spilled over to our grandparents, extended family, and invited guests. The finale was always a grand surprise for my mother…some special gift of fur or jewelry from my father. It always made her cry.
These were the types of experiences my brother would later be inspired to provide for his own growing family. It became a really big thing for him, year after year. While it was easy to get the children involved, he would always say that he was perfectly happy about trimming the Christmas tree alone if he had to. His core motivation came from an understandable place, in my estimation: having Christmas meant that things were alright no matter what else was going on…
I processed things a different way. First, I wanted to see what Christmas was like with my father’s new family. His second wife was Colombian, so the party began on Christmas eve with an exotic dinner of mariscos (seafood), carols, guests from around the world, and an elaborate ritual of giving throughout the night. We spent hours upon hours watching one person then the next take turns opening gifts that year. There was not one for me. Not even one. I swallowed a painful lump of mixed emotions that evening, which was all too familiar for me somehow.
As I gathered my things to get out of there, he shoved a jingle bell stuffed with a crumpled $100 bill into my hand. I thanked him while expertly blinking back the sting of tears. Years later, they would not come flooding back when a hilarious retelling of our most memorable holiday experience triggered a memory that, ended with me sobbing at a Christmas party. It was cathartic. I actually hadn’t even remembered the moment. The tears I dammed years before cleared the way for me to evolve my own perspectives a bit more.
As a parent, I approached the holidays with a kind of cultivated ambivalence. In those early homeschooling years, we did crafts and learned about traditional holiday observances from around the world. Later, there were a few full-blown Christmas celebrations with lights and gifts, food, music, and games. We often enjoyed joined friends or family where we were living. My intent was to create the space for my children to neither long for something they never had, nor to lament the absence of something they never missed. I wanted to empower them to determine for themselves what their holidays will be. Whether there was a tree with gifts or not, there was always love…and, that love will always be available to them, no matter the day.
I have celebrated the season in ways grand and small as Christmas, Kwanzaa, or Three Kings Day, Hanukka, the winter solstice and even Ramadan when the seasons align. Whether fasting, indulging huge celebrations or non-traditional gatherings on what might look like a scene from Rudolph’s island of misfit toys, the holidays are the same for me. They represent old traditions, new beginnings and the promise of even better days, all stemming from the realization that our presence is the most significant present we could ever give.
Tell me something wonderful about this season for you…
And in the meantime, enjoy a happy holiday season and to all a good night.