Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Christmas, Revisited

Yes, I stayed up writing this until 2:00am, because I couldn't fall asleep knowing it was unfinished. You'd better like it!

This weekend I unpacked the last of my Christmas gifts, bought next year's cards, and took down the string of lights I'd put up around my living room windows. All this de-Christmasing got me thinking about the well-choreographed Christmas traditions we've developed in my family. (Family motto: Change Is Bad. I think Dad came up with that one.) It's a routine we've perfected over the years, and it’s as dependable as TBS’s 24-hour marathon showing of A Christmas Story. (Oh my God, I shot my eye out!)

Late afternoon on Christmas Eve, we start the insanity that is getting five people showered, ironed, blow-dried, and made-up. In one bathroom. Dinner is something unassuming that can be put on the table in 30 minutes or less. This year it was Italian Beef sandwiches, accompanied by salads from the deli. I'm pretty sure this was not the first time we've had that meal for Christmas Eve. A couple more years of Italian Beef sandwiches and it'll become Official Christmas Tradition. After dinner, we resume the prettifying and finish up any last minute gift- wrapping that needs to be done. This year, that meant roughly half the gifts. Eventually I started smacking a tag and a sticky bow right on the department store boxes, sans any wrapping paper to disguise the packaging. 2005 was not a Martha Stewart Christmas! (For the record, my wrapping was done; I was drafted to finish others'. Whose gifts I had purchased on their behalf and shipped home a month ahead of time, while they wrote me a check.)

Dad's choir sings at "Midnight" Mass, which begins at 10:00pm. (No one has thought to change the name of the service, despite the fact that it's been at 10:00pm at least since we moved there in 1989.) We need to be at church around 9:30 or so; Dad about half an hour earlier. Right around 9:00 Liz asks if she is really, really expected to attend mass. This is an annual query. And every year the question is met with the same response: surprise and puppy dog eyes from Dad, wondering why on earth she wouldn't go, and being hurt that she would ditch a family outing. (News flash: she's not into that whole organized religion thing. Hasn't been since, oh, 6th grade or so.) Mom, being the peacemaker and trying to cajole Liz into going without flat-out ordering her 25-year old daughter to go to church. Liz, rolling her eyes, sighing, and, while not actually agreeing to attend, leaving the room to go put on some appropriate-for-church clothes (i.e., not the flannel pants and hooded sweatshirt she’s currently wearing). Steve and I, brushing our teeth in the bathroom, wonder aloud if Liz is joining us for church, but neither of us wants to ask anyone who would actually know the answer, lest we spark World War III on Christmas Eve. We just wait to see who gets in the car twenty minutes later.

Mass. I spend most of the time looking around to see who else is there. I recognize fewer and fewer people every year. Or, I recognize someone and wonder who’s kid they’re babysitting? On Christmas Eve, people??? Oh wait, it’s probably their kid. Huh. There is a lot of singing of festive Christmas songs by the little old ladies in the choir (and Dad), and some talk of Jesus and all. Our last priest had a tradition of foregoing the homily (“sermon” for you non-Catholics), instead reading to us his favorite Christmas cards from the year, complete with a description of the picture on the front of the card. He retired several years ago, and our new priest has established his own tradition: actually giving a homily. Father John talked about, um...oh right, how we hear the same readings every year at Christmas, but probably have a different reaction to them because we are different people a year later. Ok, true, good insight. But I kind of miss the hokey Christmas cards.

Back home after mass, the real fun begins. Actually, this year it began before we even got home. As Dad had to be at church earlier than any of us were prepared to leave the house, we took two cars. Coming home, Steve drove us kids in Mom’s car while Dad drove himself and Mom home. We beat them out of the parking lot and, as there’s really only one route to get from church home, we were going to arrive home first as well. A few blocks away from home, Steve said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I parked Mom’s car in Dad’s spot in the garage?” Peals of laughter erupted, mixed with “Ohmigod, hil-AR-i-ous” and “Dad’s gonna kill you.” (Remember the family motto?) We’re all busting up as Steve calmly pulls in the driveway, hits the remote to open the garage door, and parks Mom’s car on Dad’s side of the garage. Dad pulls into the driveway behind us, no doubt wondering what the hell his idiot kid is doing. And perhaps wondering which idiot kid is doing it. We wait for the honking and arm-waiving to ensue (“yoo-hoo, you accidentally parked on the wrong side of the garage!”), but they’re not forthcoming; Dad just pulls into Mom’s spot. The three of us scramble out of the car, laughing so hard we can hardly speak. But we do manage to observe that only in our family would such a stunt be this entertaining. I’m not kidding, there were tears.

We continue our evening with the Official Christmas Tradition of The Christmas Eve Picture of the Kids in Front of the Tree. We must do this in our church clothes, and, as we are never ready early enough to take the picture before church, it is the first order of business after church, before everyone changes into their pajamas. Witness this year’s picture:

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of The Christmas Eve Picture of the Kids in Front of the Tree. The past two years we spent Christmas in a hotel, but that did not prevent us from taking The Picture in Front of the Tree. The first year the hotel had a Christmas tree in the lobby, so we all traipsed downstairs, pulled an armchair over and took The Picture in front of the tree the good folks at Marriott provided. Last year the tree was not located in a place conducive for a picture. But, fear not! There was a picture! This time, the three of us are standing in front of the hotel room fireplace, which was decorated with gigantic red velvety bows. Did the hotel staff decorate? No, we did. Because it’s just not Christmas without The Picture in Front of the Tree, and, in the event that there’s no tree, you can make do with festive décor from the Dollar Store.

By now you’re probably wondering what, exactly, we do with the annual Picture of the Kids in Front of the Christmas Tree. Take a copy to Grandma on Christmas Day? Send it as next year’s Christmas card? Send it as this year’s yeah-it’s-after-Christmas-but-at-least-you’re-getting-a-card card? Oh, no. These pictures, along with all of the Christmas morning gift-opening pictures, are developed and then put in a box. For the enjoyment of future generations. Of which there are currently none.

After all of the picture-taking excitement has subsided, we have one final Official Christmas Tradition to uphold: we each get to open one gift. Several years back, Liz and I noted that this tradition did not exist when we were little, and we racked our brains as to the origins of this tradition. And here it is: it’s all Steve’s fault. Steve, from the moment he left the womb, but perhaps before, has been obsessed with Christmas. Growing up, the three of us took piano lessons. You’d think our parents would let us play anything we wanted on the piano, thereby making good use of the expensive instrument and lessons, right? No. We had a rule—A RULE—No Christmas Songs Before Thanksgiving. And thank god for that, ’cuz otherwise we would’ve been hearing Jingle Bells all summer long. As it was, Steve regaled us with Jingle Bells and many, many other Christmas songs all day on the Friday after Thanksgiving.

By Christmas Eve, Steve would be ready to burst. (I recall a 4-year old little boy waking me up at 3:00 one Christmas “morning” because he was “too excited to sleep—Santa came!” but wisely knew he wouldn’t find a sympathetic audience in our parents’ room. Liz sleeps like a log, so guess who got to keep the kid quiet, entertained, and out of the living room for the next four hours?) Sometime during the evening, Steve would start asking, “When can we open presents? Can I open one now? Can I? Can I? Can I? Pleeeeeeeeeeease? But I can’t wait until tomorrow morning! Just one?” And my parents, on their third child and darn tired of holding the line, gave in. (The first of many victories Steve scored that never, ever, ever would have been allowed for me. But that’s another story.) And so it came to pass that each of us is permitted to open one, and only one, present on Christmas Eve. To shut the darn kid up.

Christmas Morning in our house probably resembles that of most homes, except for all the extra rules: You are not to wake us up until the big hand is on the 12 and the little hand is on the 7, got it? You may look at, but may not touch, any of the presents under the tree. If you need a nice, quiet way to entertain yourself until the rest of the family is up, you may empty the contents of your stocking; however, you are not authorized to empty anyone else’s. (I have a sneaking suspicion that each of these rules was broken at least once.)

Anyway, we roll out of bed (these days at a reasonable hour, like 8:00am), start the coffee, and open presents in our pajamas. Dad hands out the gifts, one person at a time, counter-clockwise around the room. Side conversations are frowned upon, so pay attention please, we can’t spend all day on this. After all the gifts have been opened, wrapping paper tossed, and bows saved for next year, Dad heads to the kitchen to prepare the traditional Christmas Morning Brunch (we’ve already eaten enough candy from the stockings to qualify as breakfast) of pancakes and eggs. We again do the bathroom shuffle, and head to Milwaukee for Dad’s extended family Christmas celebration.

The Official Christmas Traditions are not nearly as detailed for the extended family, but there are two items of note:
  • The tray of cookies Aunt Sandy makes will contain an assortment of approximately fourteen kinds of cookies. There will be gingerbread cookies, complete with colored icing trim. There will be chocolate chip cookies and snickerdoodles and sugar cookies with frosting. There will be pinwheel cookies with jelly in them. And, if you’re lucky, there will be peanut butter cookies with a Hershey’s kiss in the middle. If you are not tempted to eat a dozen cookies during the Christmas Day celebration, you do not belong in our family.
  • Upon receiving and opening a gift, the correct response, under any and all circumstances, is, “Thank you! It’s just what I’ve always wanted!” Lest you forget from one year to the next, we practice this response a couple of times as a group before the first present is handed out.

  • These, then, are the Official Christmas Traditions. If you ever join us for this hallowed event, consider yourself warned.


    At Tue Jan 10, 10:32:00 AM PST, Anonymous lori said...

    I thought mine was the only mother who saved the bows for next year. We have bows older than me. Very smashed bows.

    At Tue Jan 10, 10:42:00 PM PST, Blogger Chinnu said...

    wonderful post.keep writing more


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