It is early December, and I have to fight the undercurrent of the holidays pulling me down. We have never travelled to spend Christmas with our extended family, who are thousands of miles away, but I’ve always had my kids here together, every second year at least when they weren’t at their dad’s.
This year, my eldest is in LA, living a self-imposed life of poverty in Koreatown, and I’ve carefully assembled a little box of treasures that I have to mail to an unknown address for his LA girlfriend to pick up. There is a vegan cookbook, a Croneberg novel, soap, a chocolate orange, a sketchbook and pens and gingersnap cookies baked by his younger sister. I’ve included a big wad of US cash, which I hope does not get waylaid when the package arrives at this strange address in a season-less place that has no December snow.
Basically, our family is a mess over the holidays, with estranged mother-in-laws and stepchildren, but we make the most of what we have. My husband often says: ‘let’s concentrate on who we do have here, not who we don’t’ and I’ll work to adopt this practical philosophy, especially this year when I’m one child down.
To soothe me, let’s inventory my Christmas traditions. We watch the movie ‘Elf’ when we put up our Christmas tree. It is always a real tree, from a real tree lot, and its needles shed all over the rug, but it also makes our house smell fantastic. By Boxing Day, I’m ready to rip the half-barren tree down and throw it over the back deck for the garbage men. But until that point, I do love our tree, and especially revel in watching the kids rearrange their presents into little stacks under the tree.
We host an almost-annual Open House where I make specialty cocktails like Crantinis and Limoncello martinis, and prepare devilled eggs and provolone and basil wrapped in proscuitto. We invite an assortment of people we like: work people, old neighbours, and friends. The kids disappear downstairs to play and hopefully nobody wanders upstairs crying with a bloody nose. This party is my annual deadline to get the house decorated, tree up and Christmas baking done.
Since my beloved daughter moved out this fall with her boyfriend, she hauled her Mixmaster back here last week and we spent two full days baking nine different types of cookies and candies together: almond roca, whipped shortbread, key lime meltaways, black bottom cupcakes, fruit and almond cookies, coconut shortbread, gingersnaps, chocolate snowcaps and Nanaimo Bars. We kept having to run out to buy unsalted butter, but happily made a floury mess of my kitchen, aprons on and mixers whirring, with Christmas tunes inspiring us in the background.
Last year, my daughter’s boyfriend joined us on Christmas Day. I vowed that any partners of children would be full holiday participants, and not relegated to merely in-law status, so this meant I went full out – stocking, Santa gift, big gift from us. This added to my shopping list, but since I do both the ‘food is love’ and ‘gifts are love’ thing, I don’t mind one bit.
My children, when they aren’t living in a different country, have alternated Christmas morning at their father’s and here since they were four and seven years old. The most exquisitely painful part of being divorced was the first Christmas Day I spent without them, I sat alone in my cousin’s empty apartment, counting the minutes until I could legitimately go to bed in the early evening so I could just be unconscious and have the day be done with, a sad mother without her little children.
Waking up on Christmas morning with a shrunken family got better when I found a new husband and we had our own love child together. But not having my other two up at 6 am to check stockings still hurts. I finally figured out to leave town with my new little family every-second year, driving to the mountains to spend two nights at a lodge with the other broken families. When we drive back later on Christmas Day, voila, my other kids appeared, and now that they are adults, sometimes they even start Christmas dinner for us – prepping salads and putting hams in the oven. This helps.
I make shortcut cinnamon buns Christmas morning, and we have our own roast beast for dinner, with mashed potatoes, gravy, white buns, broccoli and salad. We are so tired of eating Christmas sweets by then I just throw some crumbly Christmas cookies on the table for dessert, and that is that. We recline on the couch on Christmas Day, digesting and watching the fire.
My parents call on Christmas Day and we pass the phone around so everybody can express gratitude for the presents from Gramma and Pappa. My mom is the best gift-giver ever. Their eagerly-anticipated package arrives chockfull of thoughtfully chosen and creative gifts. Gramma sets the gift-giving bar high.
On Boxing Day we have the odd, but pleasant tradition of meeting another family for Dim Sum, and fill our recently-emptied bellies again, but this time with Chinese dumplings and buns.
My Norman Rockwell dreams of the perfect Christmas with a huge crowd and extended family and happy stepchildren has never ever happened, so why would I expect it to suddenly appear this year? The key to success for a happy holiday is to lower expectations, and embrace what’s in your control. I never ever complain about Christmas preparations, even if I’ve spent half an hour circling the shopping mall lot looking for a place to park, or I’ve been standing on my feet for 12 hours cooking in the kitchen, and washing a never-ending sink full of dishes.
This is what we do, and we do it because this is how we pass on our holiday traditions to our children, who will do a version of what we did for their own families. My grandma made a dozen different holiday cookies, and over-stuffed our stockings, and filled her dining room table until it was heaving with food, and that’s what my mom did, and that’s what I do, too.
The thanks comes in the little things, and you might have to search for them, but they are always there. The little eyes that light up, the bellies that are full, the excess of Christmas wrap all over the living room floor, the stuffing of stockings at midnight by giggly parents, the tree that is annually knocked over by a cat in the middle of the night.
I love Brene Brown’s dire warnings for us ringmasters of the circus. I urge you to take good care of yourself so you can take care of your families, too: disappear upstairs for a hot bath and to watch ‘Say Yes To The Dress’ to recharge, vent about overheated Costco line-ups to your friends, but don’t forget it is up to us to invent holiday joy for our own families, and to pass it on – even if your family is stunningly imperfect like mine.
Embrace that hot mess, because that’s all we’ve ever got, and that’s perfectly enough.