Last week I was at the mall early in the morning to escape the crowds. The Christmas ditties were already irritating me. I hadn’t slept much and felt vaguely unwell. But I comforted myself with the knowledge that it’s normal to feel a little “off” during the Christmas season. We’re overstressed. We’re probably eating lots of rich, heavy foods and drinking more alcohol than usual. And what about the joys of holiday travel? Lineups, flight delays (even sleeping in airports when weather disasters strike), and sleeping in crowded spare bedrooms.
Where is the ideal Christmas, that landscape of pristine snow, sleigh bells, sweet-voiced carolers, and harmonious families gathered around a cosy fire in their pine-scented living rooms? Does this Christmas exist only in our imagination?
This is my second Christmas of living on my own. I find I’m missing my previous unconventional family (Paul, Abebe, George, and other changing housemates) more than I did last year. Maybe that’s the reason I’m thinking so much about Christmases past.
Remembering my childhood Christmases, I realize that for most of us who were lucky enough to have experienced that ideal Christmas during childhood, Christmas magic is real. Nostalgia keeps it alive in spite of the physical discomforts, stress, and hassles of the “real” adult holiday season.
Christmases in the 1960s
I grew up in a very average and stable middle-class family: my father was a businessman, my mother was a homemaker until all three of us kids were in our teens, and my two younger brothers were close enough to my age that we were pals. My brothers and I probably have very similar memories of the Christmas rituals that were reliably repeated every year.
So much of Christmas excitement for kids is the anticipation! In our house, the buildup to Christmas included my mother’s changing her piano-playing repertoire from classical pieces to Christmas carols. More important to us kids was her baking repertoire. Two or three weeks before Christmas, she started baking sets of goodies—various cookies and bars—until there were about ten treats to choose from: shortbread, “New York special” (Nanaimo bars), Jell-O “strawberries” (with green icing stems), apricot balls, nut crescent bars, marshmallow/coconut rolls, and more. At every dinner, we were allowed to choose two goodies for dessert.
The most significant part of the days before Christmas for us was our careful examination of the growing pile of presents under the tree. The one flaw in my childhood Christmases was that my parents refused to put up a real tree—they didn’t believe in the expense or the messiness. They built our tree out of its box each year. We still loved the ritual of decorating it extravagantly with decorations, lights, and tinsel.
The countdown to the Big Day seemed to take forever, but at last it was Christmas Eve. Our parents let us each select one present from under the tree to open before we went to bed. (I guess they figured that would let enough pressure out of the bursting excitement-balloon to allow us to sleep.)
The morning routine was strict. Church was at 8:00 a.m. We were allowed to go downstairs at 7:00 to see what Santa had brought us. The adults remained in bed until 7:30 when it was time for all of us to get dressed up for church.
(I didn’t realize it as a child, but those early Christmas mornings were not easy for my parents. I only found out later that their annual Christmas Eve visits with our neighbours—I’ll call them the Smiths— were their drinking binge of the year. After all the kids were put to bed (the Smiths had five!), the adults would meet to drink brandy and build any of Santa’s toys that required assembly. This went on for hours and I’m sure the toys became progressively hard to build.)
As soon as our parents gave us their groggy seven o’clock go-ahead, my brothers and I raced downstairs to plunder our stockings. Santa always brought each of us at least one special toy—perhaps a Meccano or Lego set or airplane model for my brothers, and for me a miniature sewing basket, board game, Spirograph drawing kit or a tea set with tiny cups (yes, there were definite gender differences!) Santa’s other presents were predictable; they changed little from year to year, and consisted of small useful items for writing or artwork, little games, and a variety of candies and chocolates, which we loved because the only other time of the year we got candy was at Hallowe’en. The boring part was the mandarin orange that invariably rested in the toe of the stocking. (Yet now, I love the fragrance of mandarin oranges—for me it is inextricably linked to Christmas.)
All too soon our parents would call us back upstairs to get dressed for church. We were grateful that they chose to go to the bare-bones 8:00 a.m. service, a simple Christmas Communion that didn’t include either a sermon or hymns.
Once we arrived home after the brief church interlude, sufficiently imbued with “the true meaning of Christmas”, we had to be patient for only one more activity, breakfast, before we would get to the much-anticipated main event: opening the presents piled up under the tree. My mother cooked a big bacon-and-eggs breakfast with lots of coffee for Dad and herself. After breakfast (which took a terribly long time), both parents were more relaxed and cheerful than they had been earlier in the morning.
In my memory, the sun is always coming through our south-facing living room windows as we open our Christmas gifts. And the backyard seen through those windows is covered with pure, sparkling snow.
Late mornings and early afternoons on Christmas Day were the time when adults recovered and kids did whatever they wanted to—there were endless possibilities with all the new toys.
Late in the afternoon, we would drive to my uncle and aunt’s house on the other side of Toronto for the big family dinner. Relatives from my aunt’s family were also part of that gathering, so with seven kids and six adults, we were a decent-sized group. We loved seeing our four cousins.
I looked forward to opening my presents from my aunt’s mother and sister—they invariably gave me books. These well-educated women had an uncanny ability to choose classic books that enchanted me.
Creating my own Christmas rituals
As children, we didn’t recognize that the greatest gift our parents gave us was the sense of unquestioned security.
Christmas is a time when many parents sacrifice a lot to make their kids happy, but it’s worth it. Through a child’s joy and innocence we can remember our own childhoods.
I wanted my son Abebe’s childhood Christmases to be as happy as mine had been. There had to be some differences: Abebe was an only child, with all the advantages and disadvantages that brings. Toys and technology had changed a lot in a generation, though some classic toys (like Lego and Meccano) were still popular.
Paul, George, and I created our own family rituals. We always got a real tree, and I didn’t care how messy it was because its rich spicy aroma filled the living room. One year Abebe and I spent weeks making papier-mâche ornaments that we carefully painted and varnished. Another Christmas tradition was baking huge batches of gingerbread cut into various shapes in addition to the traditional gingerbread men (and women). After they were baked, Abebe and I painted them with batches of “paint” made from water, icing sugar, and food colouring. One year when he was in preschool I selected some of the best-looking cookies (ones I had painted, not Abebe’s messy ones) and gave them to his teacher as a present. She thanked me warmly, and commented, “I can really tell these were done by a four-year-old!” Oops.
Almost every friend or relative who visited us in the week or so before Christmas got to assist us with the painting of our gingerbread.
Church was not one of our Christmas rituals. Instead, Paul, George, and I made sure some kind of special workout was included in the day so that we could fully appreciate our huge turkey dinner. When I wasn’t injured, Paul and I often joined friends (including Dave Reed, for several years) for a “stairloop” workout in Mundy Park. Sometimes George and I created indoor workout contests using the stationary bikes and weight-training equipment we had in the house.
Christmas without Abebe
This is the fifth Christmas now that Abebe has been living in Japan. He and his girlfriend both have full-time jobs in Osaka. Abebe works as a translator for a videogame company.
I was talking to him on Skype a week or so ago about what Christmas is like in Japan. He says it’s strange to see the rampant commercialism of Christmas there without any of the supporting religious beliefs or family traditions. Abebe was wondering if Christmas in Canada is mostly a commercial event now, too, because fewer people have the Christian beliefs that were prevalent when I was a kid.
But I told Abebe that I believe Christmas is still a spiritual time—because of people’s memories and traditions. It is still a time when we want to be close to our families. And regardless of whether we are Christians or have any religious beliefs whatsoever, many of us share the Christmas spirit of wanting to help others less fortunate than ourselves.
Another thing to remember about the Christmas season is that in spite of our remarkable evolution into highly cerebral, technologically advanced creatures, we are still affected by our physical environments. From ancient times until today, we have always been sensitive to the forbidding harshness of the winter climate and the supremacy of the long dark hours that make us vulnerable to our fears. Christmas celebrations originated in festivities at the time of the winter solstice.
When we go to parties, we are fighting depression and the desire to be isolated in our “caves”. We escape to the glowing warmth of rosy indoor lights. People are dressed in their best. Glamorous women sparkle, wear dramatic makeup, expose skin that is normally buried beneath layers of sweaters and parkas. At December parties, we like, we need the indulgence of overeating and drinking too much. We crave excess, we need all the comfort we can get. In January we will have new resolve and set strict goals for ourselves. Both December’s overindulgence and January’s resolutions are part of the natural rhythm of the year.
Whatever your Christmas looks like—festive parties, comforting family get-togethers, or peaceful solitary reflections—I wish you all your own version of Christmas Magic.