Start with two children with anxiety issues- autism, Tourette’s, giftedness. Add in some parents with anxiety issues of their own. Blend together moving lots of times and lots of houses- 8 houses in 10 years. Sift with some old family items and all together you get a regulated set of traditions that help establish “THIS is how we celebrate the holiday”. And we love them- we all love them.
We start the season on December 1st with the Advent Box- a box that marks down the 25 days until Christmas. Every day, they get a little something- a candy, bubbles, a little game- all around $1, except for a mug or glass I give them every year. They race home from school and burst through the doors with eager anticipation to check the Advent Box.
Next, we celebrate St. Nicholas Day on the 6th, because he is my son’s patron saint when he was baptized. Ray gets taken out of school for lunch that day as “religious observance”. That’s followed up by St. Anne’s Day on the 9th, my daughter’s patron saint. Lunch again. He asks for McDonalds- a rare treat around here, while she classes it up with Chik-Fil-A.
On the 12th is our anniversary- which we try to spend out- away from the hubbub and the constant demands and the… all of it. Some years we manage it. Some years we can’t find a babysitter we trust enough to spend the night, a child is sick, or a child- normally Ray- is just too unsettled. This year, we have Vicki and we spent it out. A moment of peace during a hectic month.
Then, after the anniversary, we get the tree. We do live trees around here, so I’m always nervous of it drying out too fast. Decorating is an on-going process that gets started at the beginning of the month, but it culminates with the getting of the tree. Every ornament is a story- a “remember when”. We get ornaments on our travels and events, so this year, we hung the tiny St. Louis Arch and the tiny tea cup from Boston next to the gold place ornaments from Charleston, Williamsburg, the Edison House, the seal from Pier 49, the cranberry basket from Plymouth, the tiny Seattle Space Needle. Add to that the school-made ornaments that always include a picture of a child- 2 for each year. And occupying a place of honor is the silver Sheriff’s star that my dad used to wear and place on my childhood tree. Our family history can be told in ornaments. And Ray sets the angel on top- the angel that James and I bought from Walgreens our first Christmas together.
Attendance at our Christmas can also be told by the stockings. We order individual stockings from Lillian Vernon and in addition to the four of us, one year, we have Dampa, another year we have Vicki. We have a pile of “those who can’t be with us this year” stockings that stay in the Christmas boxes- waiting for them to return. My mom’s says “Gran” which was the name she was “supposed” to be called, but Elizabeth, figuring out family relationships with a limited vocabulary, named her “Mamamum” (Mama’s mama). when she was two. Ever year, when we bring out the misnamed stocking, that story gets retold.
Around the end of school, we hold our annual Train Decorating party. It started out as a cookie-decorating party when Elizabeth was six months old and my friend/doula Michelle and I got our babies together for some Mommy time too, and we decorated cookies. It evolved when I got a cake tin that made train cars from Williams Sonoma- that could be decorated. Every year, literally since they were born, the children invite 1-2 friends over and have an orgy of frosting, candies and marshmallows. They start with a singular vision that invariably ends with a masterpiece pile of sugary stuff. Each child then takes his or her own creation home. I’m not sure what the parents feel about it- but it’s one of the ways we create activities that don’t require a great deal of social interaction but are highly sought over by other children. The friends may shift every year, but the Train Party is a constant.
A few days before Christmas, my mom flies in from Santa Fe. One year,when we were in Fort Myers, we rented a convertible to pick her up. One year, when we were in Rhode Island, we inched along on icy roads. But no matter where we are, her presence kicks the holiday up a notch to the culmination. She is the final piece to our family’s Christmas.
On Christmas Eve, we eat beans and Mexican cornbread and open presents from the family. It’s another orgy of wrapping paper, boxes and me trying to corral things with ongoing trash bags. Elizabeth and Ray are “Santa” and have been since she was 2 and could recognize the first letter of her name. We taught her “M” for Mama and “D” for Daddy that year. We can trace their reading abilities by how well they are able to distribute the gifts.
Then, there’s the humor running throughout the whole gift-giving thing- we give hints of what’s wrapped inside by the names on the packages. “To: Travel Buddy 1, From: Travel Buddy 2” one year graced a framed map. We break up parts and wrap them separately- a pajama top here and a pajama bottom there. My dad used to wrap in comic paper and top with “bows” of household items (one year, there was a screwdriver on top of my present), but we have tended to stick to regular wrapping in my own family because Ray doesn’t get that humor and was very angry one year when he couldn’t keep the potholder on top of his gift.
On Christmas Morning, Santa comes- and Santa doesn’t wrap. The children are then required to come and wake us up first- and no earlier than 6:00- so that we can document their faces when Santa brings their heart’s desire. One year, it was a tricycle; one year it was a Baby Alive; last year, Ray got a drum set. Some years are leaner than other years for regular gifts- but Santa almost always delivers the one thing they’ve been wanting. Ray tends to get overwhelmed and will grunt and cry. He holds it together all during this string of traditions- but Santa’s coming is typically the final straw for him. Hey, not all traditions are planned or wanted. I try not to let it ruin the moment for me- but it’s always hard when we’ve had such perfect run up to the holiday itself.
After the inevitable tantrum, I make an extravagant breakfast- apple pancakes, lemon something or other… If we’re close to a Greek Orthodox church, we will go to service that morning. We come home in our dress up clothes and then organize the baking of the Christmas dinner. We use the china from my grandmother that has survived every move, and the sterling silverware if we can find it. It was “in a box” for about three moves. But this year, we have found it, and so this year, we have the sterling. We gather around our table, we light the candles, we take a deep breath, we say a prayer of gratitude and we eat. Some years, it’s awful; some years it’s good. But it’s a production, whatever it is. And it’s almost always late, despite our best intentions.
By the time we clean up, we’re all tired. The children are tired, overwhelmed and getting them to bed is not normally a problem. Then, because we’re all tired of the overwhelming sweetness, the grownups watch some atrociously foul grownup movie. One year it was “Die Hard”; one year it was “Bad Santa”, and this year, it will be “Get Him to the Greek”. Nothing like lots of cursing to clear away the sweetness that has become cloying by this time.
And this year, we’ve added another bead to our necklace of traditions. Yesterday was the last day of school. Elizabeth and Ray, knowing that I’m a sucker for a tradition, asked to sleep under the Christmas tree last night. “We can make it a tradition for our last day of school!” As I watched their faces with the lights twinkling last night, I valued the moment. I relished that they are 8 and 9 years old and that they still believe in Santa. I loved the hubbub that Christmas is with children. I know that this time is fleeting. I don’t look forward to Christmas when the children are grown and there are no small children to squeal over Santa. These are the Christmases we will forever remember as “Christmas”.
We don’t do much for New Year’s. Thanksgiving is ok. The other holidays- we do stuff. But Christmas… Christmas is the time of joyous excess, of connecting us with tradition with family. Christmas is… joy. And so, yes, we have a new tradition.