I'm no good at Christmas, and I've known it for a long time. Once, in middle school, we were going around the classroom on the first day back from Christmas vacation, telling what we did over the holiday. I shrugged and said "My family isn't big on Christmas."
"What are you, Jewish?" some other kid asked.
I knew that we weren't Jewish, but I didn't know why the other kids seemed to get so much more out of the year's biggest holiday than I did. I just figured we were sort of apathetic. We were low-key people in general, so if this one holiday failed to impress us the way it did the rest of the country, that wasn't entirely out of line with our characters.
I was wrong, though. It was a religious thing after all. Back before I was born, my family was part of a denomination of Christianity that was...well, let's call it restrictive. They didn't celebrate Christmas with presents and Santa. I actually don't know how they celebrated it. Probably with prayer and sitting quietly. Eventually, my folks got out of that church and became Methodists, who are much more lenient about things like reindeer and decorated trees and stockings. However, our family was already pretty established by that time and had no holiday traditions. So we had a tree and we got presents and we ate a big meal, but that was it. It was like my parents had read an encyclopedia entry about American Christmas traditions and then tried to have a holiday based on that.
I have come to believe that it is these traditions that are key to what everyone else loves about Christmas. So many of these traditions are shared, as if everyone in the whole country had actually celebrated it in the same house. So one kid might talk about going to his grandma's, and all the other kids are basking in the glow of the memories of seeing their own grandmas. But then there are individual family traditions. The same kid then talks about having to sit and wait on the stairs, shivering with anticipation, presents so close he could smell them, waiting for his parents to make themselves coffee before he and his siblings were unleashed upon the tree. And all the other kids are thinking about their own family quirks, waiting just as anxiously for their turn to share them with the rest of the class.
And I never really got all that. I didn't feel deprived, because I didn't understand what those other kids had that I didn't. I still got presents, we still had a tree. We didn't do stockings, though I tried once. I hung up some old socks on the mantle and I put candy in them. The candy all melted when we used the fireplace, ruining the socks and my interest in stockings. Even without stockings, it seemed like we had the same basic holiday structure as everyone else. So why wasn't I as excited as everyone else? The idea of a missing set of family traditions never occurred to me.
Through the magic of boyfriends, I have latched on to the traditions of other families. I went to Christmas at my ex-boyfriend's grandparents' house for several years. It seemed like a pretty standard gathering. We went, we ate, we chatted with aunts and uncles and cousins, we opened presents. The last year I went, his mom gave me my own stocking. It had a scene from A Charlie Brown Christmas on it, and when you pressed a button, it played music. I was very touched, and not just because it looked expensive. I have no idea whatever happened to that stocking. Maybe they lucked out and his next girlfriend liked Snoopy, too.
I've been doing Christmas with Josh's family for four years now. Actually, the first year, I had to invite myself. It had gotten to be December without him mentioning anything about holiday plans, when I finally asked him whether I was welcome wherever he was going. He was surprised. He hadn't asked because he'd figured I had my own family thing to go to. I should've explained to him that I rely on boyfriends for my Christmases.
His parents are divorced, which adds a whole level of complication that I never imagined in my naive and limited understanding of what other people did at Christmas. We go to his dad's for Christmas Eve, where we eat the most amazing steak and seafood dinner and watch classic holiday movies on repeat. We have beer before dinner, wine during dinner, port or cognac with dessert, followed by spiked coffee or eggnog. By the time Clarence is getting his wings, we all feel pretty good about the world.
The next morning, we go to Josh's mom's house. Or maybe his aunt's or his other aunt's or his grandmother - it doesn't matter, they all live within a square mile of each other. They have Christmas breakfast with oyster stew. All those years, I wondered what I might be missing about Christmas, and it was oyster stew. After breakfast, we sit in the living room while various family members play music for everyone. One guy plays the accordian, there are a couple of pianists, and finally three violinists and a cellist. There is an impressive amount of musical ability in that family. I would feel bad about my complete lack thereof - I rely on boyfriends for that, too - if not for his grandmother, who can't play a lick either. She just sits and looks proud enough to burst. Later, we walk back over to his mom's house for presents. There was a stocking for me last year, a spare one they had - the visitor stocking, I suppose.
I have always felt welcome at these gatherings. Everyone has been wonderfully sweet, they give me gifts, they feed me food, they ply me with alcohol. And yet, I feel like an outsider. Even as I start to understand the routine of it, I have no emotional attachment to these traditions. Perhaps that will come with time - in twenty years I may really look forward to that oyster stew. But for now, I still feel like a kid listening to how everyone else spent their Christmas vacation. I just don't get it.
Last year was the first where I was really interested in doing anything at all on my own for Christmas. After all, I have a house now. I have roots, permanence! Therefore, I need, uh, decorations. So I thought about a tree. In the apartment, I'd sort of half-heartedly put ornaments on my unicycle turned upside-down. I was going for eccentric, but I think it was mostly pathetic. A real house deserves a real tree, maybe one right in front of the living room window.
Also: stockings. I'm not sure what got into my head, but I saw some handmade stockings online and I decided that I was going to make some. If I'd thought it through, I would have realized that I'm a crappy seamstress and I don't even really understand about stockings anyway. But I paid a quarter for a secondhand stocking to use as a pattern, I bought the material and some felt, and I spent two weeks worth of evenings sewing and stitching. There was some unstitching and ripping, too. I attached felt letters that spelled out our names and embroidered greenery garlands and snowflakes. The stockings don't play music and they look...homemade, but I'm quite proud of them.
Once they were all done, I tried to remember what I'd seen Josh pull out of his stocking at his mom's house. It seemed to be small toys, candy, and underwear. So I bought some small things and informed Josh that he was responsible for buying me small things. He thanked me for the heads up.
After I finished the stockings, I hung them up on the mantle. Then I put the things that I bought into Josh's and proudly showed him the bulging homemade sock. It was then that I learned something that probably does appear in the encyclopedia entry about American Christmas traditions - you don't stuff the stockings until Christmas Eve, because Santa takes all the credit. I don't care about Santa, and I don't think I ever will, and Josh knows that. So he gave me a better reason: little children cannot be trusted not to look in their stockings. He then informed me that grown men could not be trusted not to look either. And so I had to un-stuff his stocking and go hide all the little presents again.
As for the tree, I was open for suggestions. My family had always had an artificial tree with metal limbs that were color-coded so you'd know where to attach them to the trunk. I saw tree lots on the road in December, and I saw dead trees thrown out by the curb in January. For someone who didn't get Christmas anyway, the live tree thing seemed like a waste. When it came time for us to get a tree, I was leaning toward artificial. But I could tell Josh really wanted a live one, and so that's what we got. Hey, what do I know? My family was, like, Jewish, or something.
It was a beautiful tree - probably seven and a half feet tall. It made the whole room smell like a forest, and the needles got all over the floor. We had to water it, which is another thing you don't have to worry about with artificial trees. We had to feed it, and it shed. It was like a big, decorated pet. We were admiring it one evening, when Josh told me that you could always tell an artificial tree, no matter how nice and expensive, by the pattern of the branches. They're symmetrical, and there is a certain shape. Our tree was not symmetrical. It was generally tree-shaped, but some branches stuck out more than others, while others went out at different angles. I've decided that I like that about live trees, too. They're naturally imperfect, just like me.
So we had a tree, and it was naked. We didn't have any ornaments or lights or garlands or anything. I went to Big Lots and splurged on $30 worth of ornament multi-packs. Josh found a light set at the thrift store. Even after that, his parents came over and took pity on our pathetic unadorned tree and brought us about four boxes of decorations that had been in their basement. There was one that was bought the year Josh's dad was born, a few that his mee-maw knitted, and a couple that he remembers from the time before his parents split. We kept those and a few others that we just liked, but the others were sent along to the thrift store. I was terrified that we were unknowingly throwing out treasured heirlooms. But then again, I've picked up hundreds of heirlooms secondhand. Just because a different family inherits them doesn't mean that the memories held in them are completely lost. I guess the lesson is that if you want heirlooms to stay in the family, don't give them to me.
We had just finished decorating the tree and were standing back, arm in arm, to admire it. Me, I like to ruin a sweet moment with some sentimental remark said sarcastically.
"Aw, we have a tree. Does that make us a family?"
"Maybe. I think it's the stockings with our names on them that do that. That makes us a family."
And I didn't have any smart reply to that.
The thing is, I feel like I kinda get Christmas now. I don't know if it was the new house, the tree needles on the floor, the hand-me-down ornaments, the hunched-over embroidering or what, but I enjoyed last holiday season more than I can remember enjoying one before. I feel like we are starting Christmas from scratch. We'll go to his dad's and then to his mom's, but we're also doing stuff that is just ours. We are building our own traditions. They are straight out of the American Christmas Encyclopedia, so they are shared with the whole country, and yet somehow they are only ours.