Twenty-Fourth Day of Christmas: Traditions

Christmas Eve. That name be a slight exaggeration as my family utterly lacks self-control and IMG_4066generally winds up celebrating Christmas on Christmas Eve. That includes the fancy dinner and that includes opening all the presents. We wake up the morning of Christmas like sad little children discovering that their indulgence is now costing them. We (almost always) forget to set aside even a spare treasure for the stockings.

One year—perhaps two years or ago, or maybe even three or four—I set about proving that we can rectify our mistakes of the past and forge new, healthier traditions. I squirreled away a small batch of presents for my mom and brother in their stockings so come Christmas morning they’d have something to open. We never usually get to the stockings, you see, just the space beneath and around the tree, which is white and downy and twinkling with the glitter of winter snow. Or, at least, our California version of it, which is strewn throughout my mom’s living room, but nowhere as thick as beneath the tree.

The problem was, I had forgotten myself. Come Christmas morning, they awoke to find presents in their stockings. I did not. In my imagination, that’s what being a parent is like—waking up to watch someone else benefit from your kindness, but never yourself. Your joy is always secondhand, filtered through another pair of senses. Every. Single. Day. I don’t think I’m cut out to play elf to someone else’s happiness. Every. Single. Day. I kinda like being the recipient of the magic every once in awhile, even if that sounds greedy and unrealistic for a grown adult.

My brother is almost always the last to arrive at home on Christmas Eve and I am always childishly impatient. Our numbers are never great enough to begin celebrating without him, and even if we had 30 instead of three or four, I don’t think my mom would allow it anyhow. But that doesn’t stop her from suggesting that we open presents early. When we were kids that sometimes meant opening a present weeks in advance of the big day. This must be some sort of genetic predisposition because I find it all but impossible to wait to give people their presents. It’s not opening them myself, you see. What I’m really excited for, is the reactions when people open the presents I’ve bought or made for them. It’s a complete cliché: ‘Tis better to give than to receive. But that doesn’t stop it being true. I put a lot of thought and effort into people’s presents—not because I feel obligated to, but because I enjoy it, and I relish their expressions and excitement.

We always designate an “elf” to pass around the presents while everyone else sits around the living IMG_4071room. This job isn’t simple. The elf is expected to make sure that the presents are well paced—no one is without something to unwrap for very long and no one finishes too far ahead of or behind the group … all while opening their own presents. It requires decoding people’s barely legible handwriting to determine the appropriate gift recipient. Of course, every year there’s at least one package with no name at all and my mom makes a puzzled face while trying to remember who it’s supposed to be for. And we’re supposed to pretend we don’t know that my brother wasn’t just wrapping his share of presents in the bedroom, delaying the process of opening them 20 or 30 minutes, assuming I didn’t wrap them on his behalf. Or, that they’re wrapped at all. On more than one occasion he’s handed me a grocery bag with an item inside, though I can’t recall if that was for my birthday or Christmas. Most likely both.

It is usually the elf’s responsibility to distract the animals with a treat from beneath the tree—assuming the dogs haven’t already identified their presents and ripped the paper to shreds. By giving them their bones at the beginning of the evening, we stand a better chance of making it at least halfway through the process of opening our own presents without an excited dog shoving a paw through the wrapping paper. One year, the dogs decided they were going to tear apart only my packages, resulting in claw and tooth marks on more than one of my presents. I tried not to take it personally; my mom insisted it was an affectionate gesture on their part, but I always sort of doubted it.

It’s strange that all this is just a day away. I’ve been looking forward to it for so long, basically since the last Christmas a year ago. When you’re a kid, it feels natural for Christmases to arrive frequently, as if they’re your due for being young and vulnerable and innocent. I’d turn around and it would be Christmas Eve and I’d once more be sleeping beneath the dining room table trying to catch Santa in the act. I didn’t really believe in Santa, but the act of trying to catch him was part of our tradition and my brother and I played it with gusto. Besides, I knew we wouldn’t have the tree much longer and loved to sleep in close proximity to it.

But when you’re an adult, you really have to work for those special days. Between this Christmas and next, there will be bills and taxes and health scares and I’ll probably panic at least 20 times about what I’m doing with my life, whether I’m living up to my potential. No one’s lining up to give you a happy anything as an adult, you see. You kind of have to help make that happen for the people around you, and hope someone does the same for you. It’s scarier, less certain, lonelier. It feels like there’s more riding on it, when those special days finally come. Did you get it right? Did you try hard enough? Is everyone else going to play their role?

But it’s worth it. I’m not even really sure why. Maybe because it’s not a day when you’re paying bills or at the doctor’s office or vet’s or receiving a rejection letter from a publisher. Everything about your adult life is sort of suspended, as if you’re in space and you’re kind of floating around and watching all your usual responsibilities go floating by in an unhurried and whimsical fashion that deprives them of their usual urgency. Of course, when everything’s slower and more deliberate you also notice certain things—that empty seat on the couch where grandma used to sit. The spot the tree fell down about six years ago, not 10 minutes after grandma got up to go to bed, almost crushing her but instead becoming a favorite family story. It feels especially vacant now.

I’ve grown accustomed to that tradition, missing her. Her habit of falling in love with my mom’s IMG_4798presents for me and appropriating them for herself in the weeks before Christmas. I’d come home to find her wearing the knitted hat I’d fallen in love with on Etsy. She looked like an elf, a beaming, happy elf.

We’ve all got our traditions. And yes, some of them are sad and reflective. But they’re mine, something I can count on year after year, through my teens and 20s and, very soon, into my 30s. So have yourself a merry little Christmas. And don’t be too hard on yourself, or your family, if there’s an undercurrent of melancholy or imperfection. After all, if a song titled “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” couldn’t keep out references to tears, troubles, and that troublesome bugger fate, well, maybe it doesn’t hurt to cut ourselves a little slack:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light
From now on,
Our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the Yule-tide gay,
From now on,
Our troubles will be miles away.

Here we are as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more.

Through the years we all will be together
If the Fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.



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