When you are born and raised in North America’s cultural mainstream, as I was, it is pretty hard not to grow up with ingrained notions of what is required for a “real” Christmas. Even for those of us who try to step outside some of those norms, the pressure to meet the seasonal expectations remains intense.
In my middle-class, white, suburban, Christian family, the Christmas routine was set by my mother and had few variations. First, the making of the fruitcake, long before December 25, so it could age properly. Weeks of poring through the Eaton’s catalogue, followed by letter writing to Santa. A tree, of course, and a live one. Stockings hung on the mantel or whatever stood in for one when we lived in a house with no fireplace. The reading of “’The Night Before Christmas” by my father on Christmas Eve. Cookies (homemade) and a glass of milk left out for the jolly old elf to make sure he kept up his strength during his long, long night of world travels.
On Christmas Day itself, the impatient waiting in our bedrooms until whatever time my parents had deemed appropriate for all of us to go downstairs to see what riches had arrived, magically, overnight.
The turkey went into the oven very early, so we could eat by mid-afternoon, leaving us the rest of the day to digest, read the new books we had been given, try out skates or toboggans or, as we got older, check in with friends about their Christmas haul.
What did it all mean?
When I left home, got married and had my first child (all of which happened in a four-month period of time), I decided to make a few changes to my parents’ holiday rituals. There would be no Santa Claus in our house, I declared to my then-husband, there would just be the magic of gifts. We would be far more sophisticated in our decorations than my mother, with six children underfoot, had ever been. No street corner tree vendor for us; we would head to the woods and cut down our own tree. We would not get our turkey from the supermarket, frozen and wrapped in plastic; we would find a local farmer from whom we could buy a fresh bird.
But, really, it all still came down to the same thing: we celebrated a tradition based on a religion I did not believe in and that was largely about ourselves.
Deconstructing the old model
Over the past 40+ years, I have tried to disentangle myself from this very privileged approach to the festive season. At various times, we have made our children give up toys to toy drives and have participated in December 25 Christmas dinners for “the poor,” but these activities have always felt forced and superficial.
We have given money to unpopular but righteous political causes, but that has never felt like enough.
For awhile, we eschewed a tree in favour of a decorated branch (our kids still tease us mercilessly about this) in a nod to saving the environment. We have made vegetarian holiday dinners; we have exchanged only homemade gifts.
Other years, we have ignored the big day entirely, instead passing our time watching non-Christmas movies while eating popcorn.
At one time, I convinced myself that, once the kids were grown, I would give up the festive season entirely.
Everything old is new again
In the end, though, I have to admit, with some embarrassment, that there is much I like about this time of year: baking cookies and making chocolates to give to neighbours, friends and colleagues, the outside lights that sparkle and reflect on the snow, the more or less enforced slowing down for a week, the chance to see friends we don’t make enough time to see at other times of the year, fruitcake soaked in Cuban rum for weeks ahead of time, cooking and eating turkey, the smell of a live tree, covered in lights and delicate ornaments (although this year, our rosemary plant – which we bring inside for the winter – is so large that it will serve as our tree, filling the house with a different but also appealing scent).
Where does this meandering, somewhat sentimental and self-indulgent reflection leave me? Confused, as ever. How can some of us enjoy what this time of year offers us when we know that it offers so little to others? Can we take the Christ, along with the commercialism, out of Christmas?
How can we, as Peggy Blumquist in the TV series Fargo says, “be the best me I can be?” at a time of year that seems to be encouraging something very different?
I don’t know any of these answers, but amidst the festive season celebrations I will be sure to make some quiet time to consider what they might be.