Friday, December 9, 2005
Around Home: Being merry
Last year, my older sister and her family visited us over Christmas. One of my most pleasant memories of that week was from the days following the holiday, when my seven-year-old niece, Phoebe, sang over and over again a kind of retrospective carol of her own invention: "We wished you a merry Christmas, we wished you a merry Christmas, we wished you a merry Christmas, and I-I-I had one."
There was something so enchantingly simple to me about her lyrics. Her expression of pleasure was so pure and straightforward: "No doubt about it," she seemed to be saying, "I had a merry Christmas." What would it take, I wondered, to have that pure a sense of certainty that everything about your holiday had been wonderful?
Like so many parents, especially those trying to create holiday traditions and memories for young children, I find myself thinking a lot at this time of year about what Christmas means — globally, locally and right in my household. How do we balance the thrill of Santa with an appreciation for charity? How do we institute new traditions for our household without disregarding the generations-old customs of our families of origin? When my first child was born, I was full of good intentions for how to celebrate the holidays. What I've learned ever so slowly is that during the holiday season, you have to be willing to temper your own idealized expectations with the reality that faces you. Here are some of the realities that face me — or, more truthfully, that smack me in the face — when I try to create a magical holiday season for my family. My children still cannot be counted on to sit quietly through the FRS holiday concert. They do not have the manual dexterity or the patience to see any handmade holiday craft through from start to finish. An hour spent making cookies with them means three hours spent cleaning up the kitchen afterwards. It's usually too cold or too snowy or too rainy to walk to church on Christmas Eve.
Earlier this month I read The Christmas Book by Alice Slaikeu Lawhead, a book specifically about how to balance Christmas dreams with reality. She uses the example of someone whose image of the ideal holiday includes a fluffy snowfall and says, "If you live in Phoenix, you are never going to have a white Christmas." Obvious enough, and yet that little statement reminds me of how easy it is for idealistic images to obscure plain logic. This year, I took the time to do a writing exercise of my own about my hopes and doubts for the holiday season. When I was done a half-hour later, I was amazed at the simple truth that emerged from the middle of six or seven hastily drafted pages: "Many of the things I want to do are either too expensive (take my whole family to see The Nutcracker in Boston) or too time-consuming (make ornate hand-crafted ornaments for everyone we know), or else the people I want to do them with wouldn't want to participate (my husband would rather intentionally fracture his own knee with a sledgehammer than go caroling).
It's been a very difficult year all around the world, from tsunamis to hurricanes to the ongoing disasters of war and political strife. Whether your perspective on the holiday season is influenced more by the pagan traditions honoring the solstice or by the Christian observance of the birth of Jesus, it seems to me that Christmas is a time not to overlook any of the hardships around us but to try to create an oasis of celebration despite it. My family has had a safe and fortunate year, and for that we are very grateful. If nothing goes drastically wrong in the next few weeks, the holidays will be happy no matter how far they stray from my visions — whether or not we make ornaments, go caroling, read "A Visit from St. Nicholas" on Christmas Eve, or walk through a lightly falling snowfall to church. Holiday merriment comes from so many unexpected places: seeking postcard-perfect tableaux is a mistake.
Last year's Christmas morning scene proved this to me beyond a doubt. We have a tradition of giving each child a wrapped table favor at dinner on Christmas Eve. I do this because my grandmother did it, and I imagine she did it out of generosity and also because the bows and ribbons and little boxes created such beautiful place settings. Last year, my six-year-old son Tim's table favor was a DVD of the 2004 Red Sox season. On Christmas morning, Tim and his cousin Phoebe awoke at dawn — but rather than rousing anyone else, they watched the DVD. So while other parents awoke on Christmas morning to happy cries of "Look — Santa was here," my Christmas morning began with the sound of my son joyously exclaiming, "This is the part where Pedro says the Yankees is his daddy!"
Just as in Phoebe's song, we all had a merry Christmas — merry in so many unexpected and welcome ways — the best kind of merry.
© 2005 The Carlisle Mosquito