Christmas is one of those holidays that is a memory holder – brings me back to all of the other Christmases I have celebrated over the years, from the time I was very young through my married years, and all of the strange Christmases I have had since I broke away from traditions.
Childhood Christmas memories:
Before we went to bed on Christmas eve, there were always a fair number of presents under the tree. We were allowed to open one present – Mom always picked out the one she knew was new pajamas – so we would sleep in our new pjs until morning when the picture-taking ensued.
Christmas morning at our house always started with long nylon stockings stuffed full of little toys and goodies. “Santa” would lay them on the end of our bed, so before we even got out of bed, we had already been occupied going through our stockings and playing with our toys for an hour or so, until we finally roused the parents so we could open the presents under the tree.
For a few years, perhaps between the ages of nine to twelve or so, I would wake up WAY early on Christmas morning – around 5 am, and maybe even earlier – and wake up my siblings. After the stocking exploration, we would stand on the open stairway singing Christmas carols until our parents woke up.
Coming downstairs was always magical. The small living room with the tree in front of the picture window was transformed into a room FILLED with presents. There was barely room to walk! For the next couple of hours, we would sit opening our presents, passing gifts from one to another, examining each gift, and then adding it to our treasure trove – each of us claimed a space under the tree for OUR pile. When no more gifts could be found amidst the discarded wrapping paper, Mom would clean up, and we would survey our respective piles. It was such a feeling of utter abundance.
My parents never had much money, and when I came to that doubting age, the abundance always convinced me that there must be a Santa Clause, because I knew my parents couldn’t afford all of that.
To this day, I wonder how they did it!
As I got older, the presents were more predictable. I remember one Christmas when I knew what every present was before I opened it, because I knew what I had asked for. Yes, my parents had us make wish lists of what we wanted. As I matured, I was more definite, and wanted less. The year I knew what every present was marked a turning point for me. I realized I had become more of a giver than a receiver – it was more fun to watch while others opened the gifts I had bought than for me to open my own gifts. And so we mature.
Creating our own family traditions:
After I got married, Christmases were more about going to our respective parents’ houses for Christmas. My parents’ house was quieter and we usually started there. My husband’s parents had a large Irish Catholic extended family, and most Christmases meant 20-30 people packed into their three-bedroom duplex. Then the fun was watching the younger ones get excited about each gift, and then playing with each other. And the food! My mother-in-law thought that every special occasion called for LOTS and LOTS of food, so there was everything! We ate and talked and laughed and socialized, and I watched as my mother-in-law was filled with love for all of her family being together.
When we had our own children, we would celebrate Christmas and we would light the menorah, and talk to them about other religious celebrations that took place at this time of year. We had our own Christmas traditions at home, quieter, more intimate, as we watched our own children discover the magic of the holiday. And then we’d bring them to the grandparents’ where they would become overstimulated, gregariously laughing and playing with their cousins. It was around that time, we started the tradition of going to the movies on Christmas eve. To this day, Christmas means going to the movies as a family.
All of those memories.
It was Christmas of 1989 when my ex-husband and I decided to separate. So, Christmas also has a poignancy for me. It marked the ending of a 17 year romantic relationship. But it certainly didn’t mark the ending of the love we have for each other. That last night together was one of the most loving times we ever had, and one that will stay in my memory forever.
After that, each Christmas was very different, depending on where I was. For the first few years after the divorce, I did my best to capture the Christmases we had had together as a family. The children would stay over my place on Christmas eve, we’d go to the movies, and open gifts in the morning, and then they would go to his parents’ for the big Christmas bash there.
As the years went by, his parents passed on, and there were no more big Christmases with his family. But we had our traditions. We always had a tree with special ornaments that each of the boys would help to decorate. And we always went to the movies. And they had memories of the holiday with their dad too. Their dad often would put up the artificial tree and just leave it up all year!
Later, when we moved to Arizona, we had a smaller tree; and when the boys were with Bob, sometimes they would just hang up a picture of a tree, so they didn’t need to deal with putting it up and taking it down. We would always spend some time together on Christmas – the boys, their dad, and me – and have a gift exchange of some sort. And then we’d go to the movies.
As my spiritual path led me more and more into the Druid tradition, the old symbols of the Christmas season weren’t as meaningful for me anymore, and I began to incorporate new symbols – lighted candles, holly and mistletoe, introspection during the longest night and celebrations of the return of the light. But traditions in our hearts live on beyond our religious beliefs.
For the past two years, I haven’t had a Christmas tree in my home… mostly because I have three cats and they either bat all of the ornaments off of it, chew on the ends, or knock the thing down. A few years ago, I even bought one of those optic trees, without any ornaments at all, but with pretty needles that changed color, and the cats chewed the wire so the lights no longer worked. I finally gave up. The cats won out. But I must admit that I miss it dearly.
I’ve been buying little potted trees each year, and leaving them in the comic book store, just so I have a symbol of all of those years of tradition, even more than a symbol of my faith. Not that a fir tree isn’t a pagan symbol. It most definitely is! Especially when I plant it in my yard! But for me, the “Christmas” tree taps at the heartstrings of my dear memories much more than the symbol of faith.
I feel it changing. This year’s Christmas was very quiet. Except for going to the movies with my children, it felt devoid of memory-making. My boys are grown up now, and each building their own lives, their own traditions, their own memories. I think, for the first time, I have a real sense of “empty-nest syndrome” as I watch them go off on their own, with other activities that seem more significant to them than our old Christmas traditions. And yet, there was a poignancy between us last night as we hugged each other goodnight. I think all of us were grateful for the time together, however brief.
As we turned and went our separate ways, I felt my heart tug for times gone by, even as it soars for the possibilities that lay ahead for my sons. And I know that there is that special bond between us which never dies, no matter what.
A friend of mine told me this past week that he believes that the divine love – the Christ energy – is strongest at the time of winter solstice. Another friend of mine, who is agnostic, calls the holiday Love-mas.
For me, the holiday will always reflect all of the memories of all of the love that has been passed down for all of the years of my life, and the gratitude I feel for having known that. For in the long run, no matter what the tradition, it is the LOVE that we remember and hold dear.
Remember always that even in your deepest darkness, even when you feel most separate, you are still loved. Beyond traditions, beyond faiths, there is love.