IdeaLizms is a monthly e-magazine I write. The following is a holiday story I included in my most recent edition. Hope you enjoy it. Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Happy Boxer Day, Winter Solstice, and Kwanzaa.
Christmas ran through my mother’s veins like Santa’s reindeers racing through the night trying to meet their early morning deadline. I imagine her impoverished childhood denied her the fun and festivities most of her friends took for granted. She spent early years in Omega, Georgia, a place that might as well be at the end of the earth where opportunities go to die. She was the daughter of the town drunk. Buster Woodall generally spent his Saturday nights in jail following an evening of drinking and carousing. Dusting himself off early in the am, he would don his “cleanest dirty shirt” and ask for repentance at his conservative Southern Baptist church.
My mother’s paternal grandmother helped her escape her small town fate, moving her to Orlando. Her years at what was then the only high school in town introduced her to a bigger world and ultimately my father, a sailor from Long Island, New York.
Life in her Levittown-like subdivision, though far from lavish, was sufficiently far from her South Georgia roots.
Straining to leave behind her former life, she was committed to ensuring her own three children fared better at the holidays than did she. What their budget lacked, her drive and enthusiasm made up for. Christmas in the Lang house felt like a Hallmark Holiday movie (albeit a down-the-socioeconomic scale version)
The first weekend in December found the family’s front door festooned with foil and a prickly scotch pine ensconced in a bucket tied for stability to the crank of the jalousie windows.
Boy did those needles stab fingers wrestling to attach colorful bulbs. My mother treated tree trimming the way a Hollywood director treats a movie production. “There is a gap on the left side. “No, no over there” she would direct her slaves, oops! I mean elves. Invariably my rascal of a brother, Michael, would toss clumps of tinsel onto the tree, willingly enduring the inevitable scolding from my mother who wanted her hand cut, misshapen tree to look as fine as possible.
Each child had a favorite ornament. Years later when my father was discarding the remnants of his earlier family life, he gave me what he deemed to be my favorite childhood ornament. I did not have the heart to tell him, it was the wrong one. But I dutifully include it on my own tree each year, paying homage to my childhood memories.
As I write I realize I inherited her spirit. Almost every tradition I’ve instituted in my own holiday celebrations originated from her. Although when I review my list I think perhaps the word “tradition” is too broad. It’s more like Christmas policies, kind of a Roberts Rules of Christmas Procedures. (1) Presents are never opened before Christmas morning. The idea of opening presents even on Christmas Eve was an anathema to our family. (2) No artificial trees ever passed the threshold into our home. Only “real” trees were/are allowed bringing with them the aroma of fresh pine and juniper berries. AND colorful lights. No white lights for us. (I was slightly taken aback when I saw my son and daughter-in-law’s tree bedecked with white lights. (3) Presents were/are in rank order. The “Santa present” was the big kahuna. I remember getting my Smith Corona typewriter one year on which I typed more than a few columns for my high school newspaper. Stockings were filled with little treats. Second tier presents followed– school clothes, mushroom candles, PJs…. We so looked forward to the presents. I can’t imagine there was a lot of money left over in the family budget for Christmas indulgences but it sure felt that way.
I remember the last Christmas my mother was alive. She was quite ill and died ten days later. I showered her with gifts that Christmas morning, knowing there would be little time left for her to enjoy them. I wanted her to feel the way she made me feel all those years ago.
Ok, back to the list…(4) Homemade cookies and milk as well as iceberg lettuce and carrots were left out each Christmas Eve. (My brother’s awakening to the reality of Santa came one year when he discovered the reindeer food carelessly tossed back into the crisper drawer in the refrigerator). (5) My mom would prepare our big Christmas Day meal the evening before. Generally a scotch would accompany her dicing, stuffing, and chopping. One year she noticed her cocktail disappearing faster than she remembered drinking it. Hardly later, my six-year old brother was giggling and summersaulting off my parent’s bed. I don’t think he made it to Christmas Eve services that year.
To this day I carry these traditions in my heart. Only real trees occupy our home. AND no white lights, only multi-colors for our tree. My mother’s little snowy Christmas village inspired my own ceramic version which now rests on the dresser of my granddaughter in Chicago. I still wrap presents to the accompaniment of Miracle on 34th Street (old and updated one) with an occasional Hallmark holiday movie thrown in. While no longer an Episcopalian I still attend services on Christmas Eve.
Yes, the holidays can be frenzied and fatiguing. While I’m not really a science fiction buff I do think holidays offer an opportunity for time travel. Our memories transport us to holidays past and time spent with long lost loved ones; they anchor us to our present; and create a vision for the future. If there is a meaning of life I think it can be found in the word connection. Holidays can foster connection– to friends and family, our past and present, and even with strangers. Our individual self is erased and we are connected as one, even for just a morning.