As we are drawn inexorably into the holiday season, my wondering wanders into the complicated maze of traditions, habits and rituals of this part of the year. It is a montage of practices that have evolved through many different religious, cultural and family traditions overlaid by heavy-duty consumerism and expectations. Therein lies the rub, as Bard Willy would have said had he lived down the street today. Expectations. What do we expect of ourselves, our family and friends, our churches, our culture, our economy? Usually, in this season, a lot, although maybe not from all those sectors at once.
Wrapped up in expectations are obligations; sorting that out is always an interesting challenge. It might be as simple as, “Do I really have to get 91-year old Aunt Martha a gift again this year when she has everything she could possibly need, I have no clue what to get her, she’s forever asking me to put my name on those things of hers I would like to have when she dies, so she doesn’t really want or need more stuff but I love her dearly and wouldn’t want to hurt her or, God forbid, think I forgot about her.” I know, you’re thinking, “Something consumable.” A box of chocolates, a basket of fruit, maybe homemade cookies.” Consumables always disappear, eaten or thrown out when rotten or stale, making space for more consumables when the next gift-giving event happens unless Aunt Martha’s birthday follows closely after Christmas.
My grandmothers-in-law both had a stack of new nighties in their dressers for when they “go to the nursing home.” None of those nighties were every worn for they both lived well into their 90’s; one died at home and the other one thought the nighties were too good to wear in the nursing home, so their children eventually parceled them out along with the rest of the belongings to family members and thrift stores.
As usually happens when I start musing, my thinking circles back to the part I play in all of these circle games. Since my only living immediate family is my brother, our dynamics are the focus of my gift-giving conundrum. We grew up in a family that did an amazing job of celebrating birthdays and Christmases. We valued finding gifts that would be loved and appreciated by the receivers. We valued taking the time to wrap presents carefully, choosing from mounds of paper and ribbons, sometimes disguising the tiniest present in a huge box or a series of ever-smaller boxes like Russian wooden nesting dolls. We valued writing meaningful notes on each present, trying to be clever, once we learned to write, that is. We valued quantity. Whatever size the tree, it was overflowing – or underflowing, actually – with presents on Christmas morning, taking our breath away, even though we expected it. It was a family tradition that set high expectations, so at least a bit of worry fermented in the greedy, survivalist, reptilian part of our brains that wondered if THIS Christmas or birthday could possibly be as good as the last one. Would we be let down?
We also did all the other traditions of Christmas in a big way: stockings stuffed to overflowing, the biggest tree we could fit in the living room, the most ornaments and lights we could fit on the tree but tastefully, in a pleasing, aesthetic arrangement. We hung tinsel by the single strand. We stood back and assessed, making small changes, all of us finely-tuned critics. When I was in sixth grade, we moved to a house that had a two-story living room. You know what’s coming, right? We trekked out to the countryside to buy a tree from the man who sold them priced by the foot from his many acres. We slogged through the snow, saws in hand, choosing and rejecting many trees, arguing at times, pleading the case for our favorite, finally agreeing on a magnificent tree that was just the right fullness while still having spaces for the many ornaments to hang. We were really in our element. It was like Michelangelo being given a whole new ceiling with all the paint he could use and great scaffolding. We hauled home a tremendous beauty, at least three feet taller than the ceiling. They look a lot smaller out under the expansive sky. The following year my father brought a measuring pole for just the right height but we still cut oversized trees and used the boughs.
Then the construction began. My father built a stand since commercial ones were too small. He cut off the extra three feet, drilled holes in the trunk to add branches to fill in the gaps that were left too wide by Mother Nature. He added support wire to the branches and after the tree tipped over, wired it to the wall. Then came the lights. My dad’s mantra was, “There’s always room for one more string of lights.” We had lots of the original big, hot, primary color lights as well as some with bubblers and a set of tiny, white twinkle lights way before they became ubiquitous. There were multiple strands connected to a box and each strand twinkled randomly, but irritating light patterns could result once they were on the tree, so relocation was a crucial part of the perfect Christmas tree.
I could regale you with many tree stories, like the time Dad decided to put the 16-foot tree in the stand next to the balcony so we could decorate the top without ladders and then move the tree over into the corner. He only tried that once. Or the time we had a fire in our living room on New Year’s Eve, heat and smoke ruining everything in the house, but the tree remained intact, although extremely dry.
At the core of the memories I treasure from childhood Christmases are the things we did together, wrapping presents for the person banned to a different room; doing silly and excessive things with Christmas trees; sitting in the darkened living room, enjoying the extraordinary wonder of lights, sparkles and greenery we had assembled. That was the language of love in my household, the glue that held us together through harder times of silent anger, too much alcohol flowing, and a father often gone for work travel.
In some ways it was superficial, dependent on money spent, and set a standard for future gift exchanges impossible to match. As an adult, I gradually weaned myself from expectations as the gift-receiver and from overblown, perfectionist standards as the gift-giver. A friend scolded me for bringing baby gifts every time I visited his new family, saying they valued my company, even empty-handed. Although for many years I filled living rooms with overlarge trees filled with wonderful ornaments and lots of lights, I recognized my Christmas addiction and have toned it way down. These days I might have a tree every few years, but I usually opt for favorite ornaments hanging from plants, in the windows and wherever I can attach a garland. I do have a large collection of tiny, energy-efficient lights and many of them stay up all year long. I still indulge my love of giving just the right gift to a few friends, modestly-priced, sometimes hand-crafted. We feel comfortable enjoying, exchanging or regifting them without offense.
A few years back my brother and I discussed donating to a worthy cause like the Heifer Project in lieu of sending presents across the country. We agreed it would be practical, commendable and save a lot of postage, not to mention all the time spent making, buying, wrapping and standing in line at the post office. But I couldn’t abstain. It’s not really Christmas if I don’t send my only sibling in Dallas a package of something just perfect for him and his wife, some silly stuff to make him laugh, some homemade boiled fudge we used to all make together and some aromatic Northwoods greens to remind him of the Firth family tree searches interlaced with love so long ago. Merry Christmas, Mike and Gigi. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyous Solstice, everyone. Enjoy the holidays, the presents and the presence of loved ones.