Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Christmas is the Same but I’ve Changed

The act of brushing my teeth triggers some of my most interesting thoughts .  I’ve always been rather bored by the task, standing there gazing into the mirror, trying to remember not to skip the lower molars my dental hygienist nags me about.  So I allow my vagabond mind to traipse at will.

This morning it dragged me into the hackneyed but timely territory of The Holidays. This is my 68th round of the most redundant set of annual celebrations known to humanity.  Everything about it – from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day – defies change.  Sure the various accoutrements  have varied over the years.  One year our family Christmas tree was pink fiberglass hung with hot pink ornaments and illuminated by a tri-colored rotating disk lit from behind.  Then there were the aluminum years.

Mostly, though, every effort has been made to preserve the traditions that have spanned the generations.  Variations on the Thanksgiving and Christmas menus are not welcome and they are not allowed.  Recipes for the side dishes have been handed down as if by law.  For instance, the stuffing, which my family calls dressing. The only thing about the dressing that has changed in the nearly seven decades I’ve been around is the oysters.  Ever since I made the mistake of biting into one and glancing at the remaining portion on my fork, I have demanded that at least half of the dressing be mollusk-free.  (Only vegetables should be green!)

As children, my sister and I lived for Christmas.  The biggest stress we had  was caused by the endless days and nights that preceded the big night.  Everything about the season was magical.  The feast on Thanksgiving produced a table laden with scrumptious dishes and surrounded by people we seldom saw.  And the smells!  Turkey roasting in the wee hours of the morning, sugar cookies and gingerbread baking in an oven that never rested. The sweetness of candy ribbons and peppermint canes as we passed the verboten-before-dinner candy dishes on the cherry wood buffet.

My grandmother was the kind of woman who couldn’t just sit and do nothing.  Her hands, if not busy making something, would itch with restlessness.  One year she took up creating elaborately sequined and beaded Christmas tree ornaments.  Every year each grandchild received about a half-dozen new, stunningly beautiful baubles for their trees.  Today I have around fifty, lovingly wrapped and stored every New Year’s Day, ready to eventually hand down to my son.  Just as the lights and the smells of the season resurrect my childhood memories of the winter holidays, those handmade keepsakes represent my young adulthood.

When I think of my holidays as a young mother, the tone of my memories and imagery begin to change.  Stephen was only one year old when his father and I divorced, so for the next seven years creating memories for this, the next generations, was entirely my responsibility.  With a child so young and a demanding, full-time job I became physically run down and susceptible to every virus making the rounds.  If I had to describe that period with just one word, that word would be exhaustion.

I remember one particular Christmas Eve when he was three or four and asking Santa for things that required assembly.  I had a virulent sinus infection.  I sat crying in the middle of the living room floor struggling to read the instructions and put together that year’s construction project.  But my tears evaporated when, at 4 a.m. on Christmas morning I was awakened by the squeals of my delighted little guy.

As my son grew up and I grew older, the magic of Christmas gradually faded.  Anyone who is of a certain age knows that our perception of passing time speeds up exponentially.  Whereas as a child, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas seemed an eternity, now it doesn’t seem like enough time to get ready, and I don’t even have any grandchildren yet.  And didn’t I just put all those decorations away a few weeks ago?

This year is different.  My life has calmed down almost too much.  I have time to get things done.  I am 100% debt-free for the first time since I was 21 years old, and I have the money to buy the few gifts I’m giving,  Yet most people would say I’m broke. Yes, the world is going to hell in the proverbial hand basket, our government has lost its way, and the future can sometimes seem bleak; but I am personally at peace.  My heart and spirit have opened to the things in life that have the most meaning: good health; adequate food and shelter; the beauty of nature and its ability to endure our pillaging; kindness to and from others; and the hope that resides in the faces of every little child whose laughter tickles my ears.

Something tells me this is the way it should have been all along.

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