The holiday season can be a tangled web of memory, tradition, longing, and joy.
The holidays are so tangled up with traditions, expectations, disappointments, and joys, tangled like the strings of lights you dig out of dusty boxes, or the plastic tubs you bought that year you read a book on how to get better organized. The lights themselves tangle because taking down decorations is about one hundredth as much fun as putting them up—and putting them up, let’s face it, isn’t all that much fun. Having them up is great, though, because you can feel that you are giving yourself, your family, and friends an experience of beauty or wit—or, at least, you’ve forestalled their worrying that something is wrong with you that they need to be concerned about.
One tradition in my family is that I got sick every Christmas of my children’s youth. We would get a beautiful fir tree after Thanksgiving, and I would get sicker and sicker until I was lying on the sofa negotiating with them about perhaps having a minimalist tree this year. Wasn’t it more beautiful undecorated, just green, and fresh-smelling? We didn’t need any glowy balls or sparkly stars or pictures of them from first grade in paper frames shaped like bells. My older son thought that was cool. At nine he grumbled about how all kid movies had happy endings, and he completely grasped the concept of minimalism. The younger son pushed for sparkles and cheer.
Once I found out I was allergic to evergreens, the whole experience got better for all of us, even though we grumbled about our fake tree. After that I had energy to take them to the mall, where we would give a wide berth to the enormous mechanical stuffed moose (reindeer?) whose head swiveled at intervals, and booming sounds came from its mouth. I think it was supposed to be saying “Merry Christmas,” but the raspy squawking was unintelligible and therefore mildly creepy. It was the eyes that tipped it over into alarming. We called it “the possessed moose,” and, as I say, we gave it wide berth.
I grew up in a house where the routine of celebration was over the top. We’d get the tree Christmas Eve, and the kids would go to bed. My dad would stay up and decorate the tree. This was the only night of the year he slept at our house instead of at his apartment in town. He asked that we wake him up by playing carols outside the guest room door. I would play the guitar and sing, and my sister would play her flute. Mama would cook breakfast and make coffee. We would eat in the dining room, with a big sheet pinned over the entranceway to the living room, so we couldn’t see the tree. We’d eat, and my father, who doesn’t drink coffee, would have a cup. Mama would say, “Would you like another cup of coffee?” My sister and I would groan theatrically.
“Yes, I believe I would, thank you,” he’d say, and we’d wait, bouncing in our chairs, until that cup was gone. Then the sheet was dramatically pushed aside, and there was the glory. Sparkling tree, huge mounds of presents. We believed in quantity over quality, so everything was wrapped—Q-Tips, toothpaste, oranges, Band-Aids. We went one present at a time, with everyone oohing and aahing over each one as it was opened. It took until early afternoon.
I changed the traditions when I was the mom. For my sons, I always baked orange Danish. Not much of a baker, I bought the pastries in the packages you whap on the counter to open. I started that tradition deliberately, remembering my mother crying. She was crying at a flour commercial that used to come on when I was a teenager. A mother, in the kitchen, baking, and the voice-over was crooning about “making Gold Medal memories” for your family. She was a second grade teacher who came home tired my whole life. “I n-n-never m-m-made you all any G-G-Gold Medal m-m-memories,” she sobbed. Of course I patted her shoulder and told her that was fine. I wanted my boys to have some memories, and at least one of them should be of something baked. Bless all our hearts.
The boys also have the memory of our next-door neighbors in South Carolina, who were strong Southern Baptists. They had two beautiful blond teenagers, a boy and a girl. Every Christmas season they would have a live nativity scene at the side of their house. The boy played Joseph and the girl played Mary. If you didn’t know they were siblings, it wasn’t off-putting. They’d get a mule and a cow and a baby doll. It attracted little pilgrim traffic, unlike the big Methodist church downtown that set up a drive-through live nativity, so you could stay in your car and visit the baby Jesus. There were so many drive-by pilgrims the city had to close the street to other traffic. My sons don’t have the same Christmas memories I do. They’ve got the neighbors, the Danish, the stockings on Christmas Eve. Every family is its own culture.
One of the best antiracism trainings I went to had an exercise at the beginning that made it plain that each one of us came from a culture. It was wonderful, because it refracted cultures as if through a crystal, painting them as Italian, Greek, German, Irish, South Indian, Filipino, urban Black, rural Black, and more. Most of all, we saw that every family had been a culture of its own, with its own language, stories, assumptions, habits, ways of dealing with money, relatives, food, drink, affection, décor. In my practice as a couples counselor I used to tell my clients that every marriage was a cross-cultural marriage, and odds were good that each partner felt the way their family did things was The Way To Do It.
I wish you a celebration this holiday that has glittering moments of excitement, warm moments of contentment, and not too many moments where you’re heaving yourself along through projects that must be completed before you can rest. Where we came from is an enormous part of who we are, but it’s not every part. May you add your own strands of lights to the tangle. You won’t do it perfectly. That’s okay. Let love rule, and the compulsive craving for perfection will fade. Love where you came from, if you can, and love how you change things. It’ll still be a tangle, but maybe untangling together can be part of the tradition.
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The Rev. Meg Barnhouse, a UU World online columnist, is senior minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, Texas, and the author of several books, including Broken Buddha. She is also a humorist and singer-songwriter. (Author’s website.)
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