Last week, I spent several nights in San Antonio for a work-related conference. In the evening, the building that made up the view outside my window lit up in a dazzling array of red, green and white lights which spelled the word PEACE – a sparkly homage to the holiday season. Instead of closing my shades to keep the light out when I went to bed, I decided to leave them open so I could fall asleep to the word, the thought, the idea of peace.
The few times I’ve found myself in a warm climate around Christmastime, I’ve had a great appreciation for the juxtaposition of Christmas decorations – so much the domain of colder climates, in my mind – and their environment. Chili pepper lights strung across sun-bleached buildings, tinsel in palm trees, outdoor Santas, reindeer and nativity scenes shimmering beneath the sun – my mom has always rejected the notion of traveling somewhere warm for the holiday because she thinks it wouldn’t “feel like Christmas” but I disagree – I think warmer weather makes me feel a little closer to Christ’s birth. He was, after all, born in the desert after his parents’ arduous journey.
For as long as I can recall, I’ve been more drawn to the religious aspects of Christmas than the secular ones. Perhaps as an adult this isn’t particularly unusual – I am not exactly sure who the grown ups are that respond to all the early Christmas advertising and brough ha ha that happens now – but even as a child I remember preferring advent observation and Christmas Eve service – Mary’s faith in God and Joseph’s faith in both of them and their long, exhausting trip across the desert – to Christmas day itself. Don’t get me wrong – I delighted in Santa’s visit and exchanging gifts with my family as much as the next kid, and I loved our tradition of opening our stockings and then having a family breakfast before moving onto the gifts we purchased for one another. But unless you are extraordinarily rich, Christmas gift-giving has lots of room for error, for wishes left unfulfilled – for wondering, does my father/mother/brother even know me at all? Worse, though, than any gift-giving mistake, which can always be forgiven by remembering it’s the thought that counts, was the Christmas afternoon malaise that often overtook our house while my mother and grandmother prepared Christmas dinner. I know other families who were allowed to leave the house on Christmas Day, to go skiing, to the movies, to visit friends, but in our house Christmas Day was serious business, to be spent inside, with family, enjoying one another while my mother and grandmother worked themselves practically sick preparing prime rib, twice-baked potatoes, green beans, tomato pudding, fresh bread and an elaborate dessert, as well as appetizers for an endless cocktail hour that came prior to dinner. By the time dinner was over, the kitchen destroyed with dirty dishes, everyone was over-full and stir-crazy from all the time inside, but even suggesting a walk was unthinkable because of all the dishes and cleaning up that had to be done. The shiny promise of Jesus’ birth just a mere twenty-four hours prior, celebrated with a multitude of white candles and singing “Silent Night” already tarnished by too much from the secular portion of the holiday.
Once Sam and I purchased a home of our own we started hosting Christmas, and in this way I was able to take a small measure of control over how we would spend our time during the holiday. We live in a city, and even on Christmas Day there is a feeling of vibrancy and life that doesn’t exist in the small northern towns we travel to in order to be with our parents. People walk their dogs, run to the nearby drug store for the paper, commune on front porches in the later hours of the day, literally stop by for a cup of sugar. I’ve experimented, here and there, with variations on our traditions – going out to dinner at a fancy hotel instead of cooking, or having a fancy Christmas Eve dinner and enjoying a buffet of some sort the next day prior to seeing a matinee of a Broadway production, but WASP dna has a strong pull and more often than not I found myself polishing the family silver, prime rib roasting in the oven and the tomato pudding bubbling away, feeling frayed around the edges. It’s not something I am particularly proud of, but I am not alone in this particular insanity – my husband has come to love my family’s traditions so much that they’ve usurped any he brought with him to the marriage.
If we don’t eat prime rib on Christmas, what the hell are we going to eat? My brother asks, panicked. Not turkey. No way am I eating turkey on Christmas. And don’t even think about ham.
And so the beat goes on, with Christmas Eve at the Presbyterian Church and Oh Come, All Ye Faithful and walking outside after Christ’s birth into a cool, crisp northern night and then Santa’s mysterious midnight arrival and too many presents despite us all swearing to keep it simple this year and the same holiday music in the background and silver to polish, tables to set and chilled shrimp cocktail arranged just so. Everybody has a favorite part of the holiday and between the importance of church to my mom and me and Sam and my brother wanting to protect Christmas dinner and Santa for the kids and all of us watching “The Christmas Carol,” well, even as I write this I can feel myself mellowing, allowing room not only for the grace of Christ’s birth but for the ribbons and wrappings and even the traditional argument about how long it will take the beef to properly cook.
This year, for the first time in a decade, Sam and I are loading the car and the kids and heading to northern Michigan. In some ways, it feels like a lot of work to get out of the house (gifts to wrap bags to pack dog to board) but in so many other ways I like how preparing for a journey to celebrate with loved ones echoes the journeys undertook by the Wise Men, by Joseph and Mary.
This is my round about and odd way of saying, to all of you, Merry, merry Christmas. Merry Christmas. I am so thankful for all of you. Truly, so thankful.