Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Keeping the Grinch Out of Christmas . . .

Because I was a stay-at-home mom (albeit one who ran a music studio from home, teaching piano and theory, while also a perennial student) whose husband was often away, I did most of our Christmas prep for most of our married life. Christmas cards in the early decades, baking, grocery-shopping, gift-making and gift-buying, outfitting each child with a Christmas outfit, often handsewn. Although Pater has always been very helpful and very competent with kids and kitchens and laundry, etc., he so often seemed to be somewhere he couldn't get home from until the 22nd, so I either picked out the tree myself or, more often, came up with good reasons for saving the Christmas-decorating until after that date. Some years, depending on what schools the kids were at, there would be four separate evenings devoted to band recitals and Christmas concerts besides the Christmas piano recitals I'd host for my students. You know the drill, I'm sure. You've either been there or you still are.

Eight or nine years ago, Pater was working in Ottawa, flying home every three weeks or so, unless I flew out there; we still had one teen at home, the other three gone but planning to return for Christmas, some with partners. Driving back from Victoria (where I was teaching a class and completing my doctorate), radio tuned to CBC for the 90-minute drive, I heard an entertaining radio play -- or perhaps just a short story read aloud -- about a 60-ish woman overwhelmed with all the preparations for the perfect Christmas her adult daughters were expecting her to produce yet again. Something about the recitation -- the long grocery list for the turkey dinner itself; all the baking ingredients to haul home and transform through hours of labour into the shortbread and butter tarts; the trip out to the special shop that sold the perfect Christmas crackers for each dinner guest; the tree itself which must, the daughters insisted, be live; the decorations that required hauling out the ladder and sifting through dusty boxes.

The story's twist was that the protagonist realized she didn't want to do all of this anymore and that she didn't need to -- if I remember correctly, she left a message for her daughters with instructions about how to replicate the perfect Christmas of their childhood -- and she skipped off to the tropical holiday of her own dreams.

I love having all of mine home for the holidays, and they're all great house guests, nowhere near as demanding as the daughters in the CBC story. But I was feeling burdened by the expectations I had set up, and that story liberated me. The academic year sets December up as a month of heavy marking -- by the time I have time freed up, the stores are packed and the trees are picked over. Besides which, we're car-free by choice on our little island, so once we get gifts, tree, decorations, and groceries off the boat, they have to be wheel-barrowed or back-packed or biked to the house. Pater got home two days before Christmas, and we needed to be ready to feed eight people for days -- bags and bags and bags of groceries. I was exhausted simply at the thought. The tree, at that point, seemed like a burden rather than a celebration.

So inspired by the story I'd heard, I let everyone in the family know that I wasn't doing the traditional tree anymore. Instead, I found a large arbutus limb on the beach -- the arbutus is my favourite tree, stunning with its red bark peeling away to reveal the green beneath -- with many branches for Pater to string white mini-lights along. I filled several glass bowls with the old tree's multi-coloured lights and plugged those in for some extra festive glow and savoured the simplicity.

I also simplified the gift list considerably and cut back on some of the baking. Otherwise, though, we retained the elements we enjoyed the most -- good food, music, some decent bottles, and great company.

When I first put that Driftwood tree up, I said I'd wait until I WANTED to go back to a traditional tree, if ever. I recognized that many of the expectations I had begun grumbling about were ones I'd created and nurtured. Indeed, none of my kids ever complained about the change and for eight or nine years now, we haven't even missed that great fir smell or those gradually-acquired, long-treasured ornaments.

But this year is Nola's third Christmas, the first one she has language for and can really participate in meaningfully. And since her parents are coming to our place on the 23rd, we're it for the Christmas tree. For the first time in a long while, I really wanted to put up a traditional tree and bring out all the ornaments of our almost 35 36 plus (time flies when you're having this much fun, I even got my numbers wrong!) years of family life. Pater concurred and happily prepared to resume his long-abandoned post as chief tree-fetcher.

Then, as you might remember, all this joyous new resolution was interrupted by the nastiness of septic problems compounding my confinement to a stack of not-always-inspiring first-year papers to be marked. The repair guy was so busy that I spent most of the week waiting at home in case he was able to make it that day. With only myself at home (somehow, the pump uncannily intuits Pater's absence and generally saves its breakdowns for such times), I was nonetheless surprised at how much "grey water" one body can use, as I carried it outside to splash sudsily in one corner of the garden or other. When the seized motor was finally replaced (under warranty, thank heaven for small favours!) by mid-Friday, there was a mountain of unwashed laundry, a dishwasher of dirty dishes, and a house generally in need of a good scrub. Not a day to be excited about a Christmas tree.

But it had arrived, and we hauled out the long-stored boxes. Over the next few days I may show you some of the ornaments and tell you about the memories they carried. For now, I will just say that the smell of fir in the house, the glow of white lights against dark green branches, the carefully placed (kitsch at the back of the tree, please) baubles, angels, hand-embroidered and smocked and tatted treasures . . . the wonderful totality of a Christmas tree for me at this particular stage of my life . . . well, it was worth turning away from the obligation for almost a decade in order to so newly and richly appreciate the privilege and luxury and joy. And that's without even seeing it through Nola's eyes yet.

Anyway, as I savoured the tree's appearance after such a challenging and chaotic week, a few lines from a favourite children's book, Mog's Christmas, sprang to mind. Sadly, my copy seems to be missing from our stack of Christmas children's books and will be replaced, for Nola, at the next visit to Vancouver Kids Books. Meanwhile, though, I tracked down the lines I was thinking of. Mog, a rather particular cat, has been much disturbed by the disruptive Christmas preparations around her home, most especially by what appears, from her perspective, to be a walking tree. She escapes, experiences another calamity, but finally, thankfully, she is found and rescued by her family and . . .

Then everything was lovely. The whole house was lovely. The tree had stopped walking about and made itself all pretty. And Mog had three boiled eggs and some turkey and a present to unwrap. “Happy Christmas, Mog,” said Debbie.
I look forward to sharing more about my tree ornaments and about children's Christmas books and favourite gifts from the past and what I wear and maybe even a favourite recipe or two. I'd love you to share as well. . . .some of that is already happening around the Blogosphere (Tish at A Femme d'un Certain Age has been hosting a lovely series of holiday posts you will love). Do you put a Christmas tree up? Is it decorated already? And what's your favourite decoration or decorating trick of the moment? Most importantly, how do you balance between obligation and joy? how do you maintain a sense of what really matters over the holidays?


  1. Oh, this is just wonderful, and many of the thughts you've expressed here dovetail with my own musings about the holidays and how to create meaningful traditions (as opposed to obligations). Nola is going to be SO thrilled!!!

  2. So enjoyed reading this, and good reminder about runaway expectations.
    (The woman in the play was extraordinarily accommodating, but maybe that was a dramatic device.)

    We always put up a real tree, which I've managed to negotiate down from immense to "tall young man" size.
    Seeing Christmas through a young child's eyes, that wonder- what a gift. We celebrate in the French Canadian tradition with the révillon at Christmas Eve and a quieter Christmas Day, sleeping in and having oyster stew for lunch.

  3. Well, I'm afraid to say that I haven't really decorated yet, and might not as we leave for Scotland on Sunday. Our artificial tree gave up the ghost last year and we won't get another one here. No use in getting a real tree - we are gone for most of our 3-week school break. I did put out the advent calendar stockings - but my boys, the little beggars, went and ate everything at once!! However, we did indulge today in what is a Christmas tradition for some - finally got to the Opera House with the boys, to see The Nutcracker, no less. I think they enjoyed it - but I doubt if they will admit it!Christmas has not been the same for us the last few years - we go to Scotland and stay in a friend's holiday home, so it doesn't feel the same. Next year we will be in a home of our own, back in Canada (in Barrie, ON this time) so I'm looking forward to that. So, Merry Christmas to you and the family - I'll look forward to catching up on your Christmas posts when I return! Patricia

  4. What a terrific post! I don't really know how I keep the crazy out of Xmas. Maybe I don't? I am a really good shopper - that helps to tone down the stress. (Though this year my shopping has been limited to what I did before the 3rd week of Nov. and what I've done online, given the foot injury). I enjoy the food and I try to stay sane - not buying unnecessary crap just to have it around. And I do have an artificial tree - my husband doesn't believe in real trees (I know, insane, but I'm not fighting that battle). I just dress it very chicly and everyone assumes it's real.

  5. The CBC broadcast was timely and liberating...
    so happy to hear that Nola and family are visiting you and that you feel right about having a tree.
    I love the arbutus driftwood idea...we did that with a ficus for a few years.

    Parenting here sounded a lot like on the home front dad on the job 24/7...the younger parents these days seem to have achieved a better balance...yet I hold to those memories with a firm grip...they are all mine!

    Mog's Christmas you reminded me of our copy long gone or in a trunk beneath the stairs! Thank you.
    Isla must have a copy..she is 6 months and it's her first Christmas.

    Take care mater...

  6. Pseu: It will be such a joy to see Christmas through a child's eyes again.
    Duchesse: I love the idea of oyster stew for Christmas lunch. We do a tourtiàre Christmas Eve -- used to go to Midnight Mass first, but it's such a challenge on the island, we no longer do that. Do you stay up late to open gifts then?
    Patricia: It will be interesting to see, years from now, what your sons remember as the family Christmas traditions, perhaps something you never realized was becoming such a thing. And Bravo! for getting them to the opera house -- never mind what they're willing to admit now, that is surely a memorable event. Enjoy your Scottish holiday.
    K: I can only imagine your energy and perfection being applied to Christmas -- I'm sure your place will be resplendent, artifical tree and all!
    Hostess: Glad I triggered that memory -- the next generation deserves this book as well!

  7. Such a thoughtful post. Interesting from my vantage point, in that to a divorced woman who spent much of her life in a very demanding career, your life seems perfect much of the time. To hear that at one point you got sick of Christmas of course reminds me that everyone has a real life, not a pretend one.

    I am happy that you have Nola, and happy that she will have your tree. We will have one this year, and I have had one every year, real, even when I lived in the 4th floor apartment for 2 years. Every year I buy a new ornament or 2. This year it was from the young woman who did my blog redesign. Seemed fitting:).

  8. We haven't put up a tree in several years now...and tend to make rounds during the holidays rather than entertaining family at our house, but this post did bring back the magic of sitting in a dark living room...simply gazing at the magic of the tree and breathing it in.

  9. I am currently once again enjoying my Christmas through the windows of others! This year's trees seem more beautiful than ever which then fills me with an unbearable sense of melancholy.

    I am sure we too as young twenty something girls put huge pressure on our mother to create the perfect Christmas, both she then I tired every which way we knew but as I posted some years back I gave up and I am now the mother who leaves. Luckily for them their father ticks all the boxes and some, but I miss it very much and do sometimes crave just one Christmas at home.

    Your post perfectly captures that hideous dilemma faced by those who work hard and yet have to bear the brunt of putting on the perfect Christmas as well creating a level of expectation far in excess of attainability all in a window of two days. I am sure with Pater rolling out your pastry in the kitchen this year whilst you hug a cup of egg nog it will be brilliant and especially for Nola too.

    Hey, what about the temperature in Finland!!

  10. Great post Mater. I know you will enjoy spending Christmas with Nola. We do always have a live tree, because I love to look at it. I don't stress too much over the other stuff, because I really don't have other family besides my husband and children. My favorite decorations are the white crocheted snowflakes that my mother made. They make the tree look lovely, and they are quite special to me. I wish I could make them, but I don't know how. Hope you and your family have a wonderful Christmas.

  11. LPC: This phenomenon always alternately amused and frustrated me -- the way we stay-at-homes envied the women-with-briefcases and vice versa. In truth, we were all juggling a complete set of joys and challenges, right?
    One of my favourite traditions up until I took a break from the Christmas tree was adding a new ornament or two every year -- I suppose I hope that someday my kids will want them for their own tree and I'll happily pass them along.
    Terri: It truly is magical, all over again, the lights, the scent, the very foreignness of a large tree in the deep interior of one's home. . .
    Alison: Are you doing your peeping-tom Christmas tree photos again?? Too late to post some before you leave?
    Is it this year in Finland or next? I'm confused. But do stay warm, even if you're a sly thing with your remarks about Paul and his potential pastry-making. ;-)
    Julianne: How lovely that you have tree snowflakes your mother made for you -- they must be so pretty against the tree's dark background.

  12. We opened gifts late when the children were small (and too excited to sleep) but for the last few years we we've done gifts s when we rise late on Christmas.

    PS. Tourtière: for those unfamiliar, a meat pie made with minced pork,veal and/or beef. Kind of like a pasty, but looks like a pie, not a turnover.

  13. Duchesse: It's such a civilized contrast, isn't it, when they can wait to open gifts later in the morning after sleeping in . . . although I always end up getting impatient and wanting to wake everyone up!

  14. Beautiful, touching, lovely. Another no-cost gift you have given us, a touching, publishable, multi-layered short story.

    Thank you for this gift and the one you gave us chez moi.

    Your home will be filled with joy and love for the holidays and, as always, I wish you all the very best in every way. Merry Christmas.


  15. Tish: Thank you so much -- you're too kind! The gift-giving project chez toi was such fun to be part of.
    All the very best of the holidays to you and yours.

  16. Oh, I used to go all out for Christmas, and I was working 60 hours a week as well. I must have been a looney toones woman.

    This year I didn't even manage a tree, but we had gifts and a buffet around two small artificial cedars that I usually put up and light behind my creche figures. I didn't put out the creche figures this year, even though they are among my most precious belongings, fashioned in clay by Ecuadorian Indians. Oddly my Jewish husband, who hates trees, loves those figures, and so it works for us. It is the spirit that counts, and the thrill of a 4 year old eager to see what Santa brought.

    When the children were teenagers and slept in, I was the one who was up at dawn waiting for everyone else to wake up.

  17. Mardel: I imagine family was especially precious to you and G this year and the truly important aspects of Christmas made themselves even clearer than usual


I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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