The holidays surround me. No, the tree isn’t up. Holiday cards aren’t coming or going. No candles grace the table, neither Advent nor Hanukkah, although one season has begun and the other approaches in a few days. Only older son’s efforts give physical evidence of the season, with lights hanging in most of the first floor, paper snowflakes filling the dining area, and paper chains wrapping the crown molding. And I have been doing a bit of shopping, making my closet an off-limits place.
Physical manifestations or not, once December begins, I start to think. For years, I wondered just what I believed. Was Jesus the son of God? Was he a historical figure who led a movement of compassion and social justice? Was he an idealized conglomeration of social actors in his time? I don’t know. Jesus — divine, human, or mythological — has a powerful message that resonates today as well as it did two thousand years back. Belief aside, that message continues to impact the thoughts and actions of many. I suppose that’s worth a celebration.
With the theological questions put aside, this year I’ve found my thoughts drifting backwards through the last fifteen years. My older son’s first Christmas at seven months of age was a commercial delight. As the first grandchild on both sides, he was celebrated in full retail fashion. I can’t recall what his father and I bought him, but I remain amazed at the appallingly large pile of presents from grandparents for a child who didn’t care about anything more than paper to crinkle and lights to watch. What I do remember, thanks in part to video watched countless times, is that child a week later, pulling up on every piece of furniture, laughing while the Barenaked Ladies sang “If I Had a Million Dollars” while his father popped out from behind the ottoman. That first Christmas with him was love and promise incarnate. He was the best gift I’d ever received.
As my older grew, so did his appreciation of the holiday. The second year, it was all about the lights. “Ights, ights! Pitty ights!” came the cry from the backseat as we drove our toddler through the Hines Drive Light Show on a snowy December evening. His face beamed with excitement — all those lights, those pretty lights seemed to be in place just for him. For the first time, we started taking detours from trips after dark, seeking out the “pitty ights,” a habit persisting for years to come.
A year later, the lights still delighted, but presents had gained more attention, although one or two would still have done. That Christmas was the first that kept his father and I up late as we arranged and rearranged wooden train track on a board, carefully figuring how to make the most of the space. I’m not sure who was most excited as his Dad and I carried the display into the living room at the end of a long round of present opening. We all had a fine time for years to come, designing track and running trains. Gifts of tunnels and bridges with plenty of new engines were under the tree each season.
A year later, I was pregnant with my younger and feeling rather queasy as we travelled to Wisconsin to spend the season with my mother. The night of December 24th, the day after we arrived, my critically ill stepfather died, having smiled his last smile at my older and knowing that another grandchild was on the way, his fourth. It was a solemn season, with Christmas Day plans unchanged only because of my older’s presence. Again, he was our present, our life in the midst of death. Our family was a gift to my mother, who would from then on travel to Michigan for the season instead of staying home.
The next year, my younger joined us. Less outgoing than his (introverted) brother, he spend the jangly, crowded season’s celebrations in a sling or at my breast. Comfort often eluded him, and the busy gatherings that fill this time of year often still bring him stress mixed in with the pleasure. While little else from that holiday season comes to mind, I can still feel the weight of his body in that sling and the rocking and patting that was part of the ritual that kept him somewhat together. My older son enjoyed the noise and crowd while my younger and I often retreated into quieter spots.
The years blur after that. Children grew. Toys and books multiplied, an embarrassment of plastic, wood, and paper filled the living room on Christmas morning. Even after we left the Catholic and then the Episcopal church, the Advent candles remained, joined by Hanukkah candles and traditions when my mother converted to Judaism. Fatigued by the present deluge, we put the reigns on at home, following the adage, “Something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.” Other traditions remained unchanged from my childhood — stockings first, coffee cake second, presents (taking turns) followed. A real tree replaced the artificial one, and one parent on Christmas morning replaced two. My mother continued to visit.
I’m not sure why Christmas past is so present this year. Perhaps once the tree is up and decorated, my mind will stay put in Christmas 2012. As the boys grow older, their excitement softens into enthusiasm. While this makes the waiting for Christmas morning easier, it reminds me that more changes are coming. Requests for gifts have changed, with my older’s list including a solid state drive, a mechanical keyboard, and a long list of computer related paraphernalia. His brother’s list remains more comforting — historical costumes and books still have a place among the tech accessories. I find myself missing pouring over train track adaptors and roundhouses.
My relationship with the holiday remains uneasy. It’s mine to celebrate by tradition alone, and I can’t shed the sense of a season stolen, now that my faith is gone. Perhaps that tradition is enough, as long as within it we continue to look beyond the lights, presents, and coffee cake to the reminder that loving each other is humanity at its best.
May your holiday season be filled with love and peace.
Here’s the collection of past musings on the season, a chronicle of belief changed and the struggle the holidays presented.