Who Are We Trying to Kid?

I have to write this because this Solstice morning on my first day off for the winter vacation I’m taking—in part because I want to, in part because the university where I work is shutting down between Christmas and New Year’s in conservation mode (AKA state budget cuts of over 52% in the last four years with more to come)—I read two articles in swift succession that both provide a reality check on this whole “Christmas” gig.

First I read the poignant and so-true-it-hurts piece by Cheryl Ann Millsap: Life Isn’t Wrapped in a Neat Little Bow. Go read it, then come back.

Or let me ‘splain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up: The Christmas you think you remember is not the one you really got. You have mythologized, added glitter and rainbows, and wrapped it in pretty paper.

Then I read the laugh-out-loud OMG version by Jen from Kansas, the People I Want to Punch in the Throat blogger I just discovered: Holiday Gifts.

This is what really happened behind the scenes all those years you thought Santa would bring you just what you wanted: Santa dropped the F bomb while she tried to remember where she hid that thing you absolutely had to have and then stopped playing with two days after Christmas.

As a mother, some years I tried to create the Christmas of my childhood, which in my memory always involved beautiful, soft, fluffy white snow in which I could play for hours and that I never had to shovel because that’s the daddy’s job (if I even thought about it). That Christmas glows softly, warmly, with the tree’s lights reflected in the window. The house smells like cinnamon. The mommy wears lipstick and eye shadow and is actually dressed in clothes, not sweats or her robe and long johns.

Other years we dealt with the reality of the Christmas o’ Divorce, which means you celebrate on December 26 and you tell your kids that Santa made two stops to leave a stocking and presents and you just hope silly ol’ Santa didn’t turn forgetful and bring the same present to two locations because after all he’s dealing with a gift list in the millions. Those years smelled less like cinnamon and more like coffee with Irish cream, which is a requirement if I’m going to wake up early in the morning and smile for the camera.

The one truly brilliant thing I instituted many years ago is a tradition I invented: Kids don’t get out of bed (unless they truly, totally need to pee, after which they scurry right back to bed) until I come to their rooms bearing hot chocolate. This way I get to dictate what hour it is when I hit that first cup of coffee.

As a parent I’ve tried to instill the idea that it isn’t about the “stuff”. But in the absence of a religious tradition, oh, yes, it is. We have a secular Christmas, so no midnight Mass, no special reason for the season—it’s really all about the stuff.

It should be about family, right? Well, sure, yeah, right. Then your parents get older and you stop going to their house and seeing all the siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and what-not. Your kids get older and Santa starts leaving practical things like Rite-Aid gift cards in their stockings (girls=make-up). They get even older and one of them now has in-laws and goes off to that house, and your husband’s kids won’t be here until you go pick them up December 26 for the Christmas o’ His Divorce.

It becomes mostly about being off work, sleeping in, eating hash browns (not that I’m complaining!), watching movies, and figuring that you’ll lose in the comparison of who gave more/bigger/better gifts because those four years of budget cuts at the university mean you haven’t had any raises and you’re paying more for insurance so basically you’re taking a pay cut every year but at least you have a job.

But then your 17-year-old daughter says, “The one thing I really care about is Christmas morning.” You realize that it actually is worth some effort to make a special moment or two, because who doesn’t love surprises? (The good kind—not the jump-out-from-behind-a-tree-and-make-me-scream-which-I-hate kind.)

You realize that the Christmas they’ll look back on—the one they’ll wrap in glitter and rainbows and pretty paper—is whatever Christmas you gave them. They don’t have your memories so they aren’t making the comparison you make. They only have their own memories. They love you. And they love Christmas.