WHY CHRISTMAS IS JUST ANOTHER DAY TO ME
When I was a kid, we had a Christmas Carol Sing every year. The house was full of friends, the dining room table covered with cookies. We were Christians Scientists, so we drank non-alcoholic eggnog and fresh cider. My mother played the piano and we passed around little books of carols, calling out our favorites as the evening wore on.
On Christmas day my grandmother, Ma-Maw, and my Aunt Jean arrived with a station wagon full of gifts. The kids were told to stay upstairs while the gifts were unloaded, and when we came downstairs, there was a multi-colored pile of gifts under the tree, huge ones, small ones, and those tantalizing envelopes hanging from the branches of the Christmas tree. It was maddening to wait until after our pancake breakfast to unwrap them.
Then, after we were sated with gifts, Ma-Maw and Jean left, we all put on our best clothes, and around 1:00 we arrived at their house, where the maid, Etta, had prepared a feast. We ate ourselves into a stupor, then spent playing board games and card games – first Canasta, then, as I grew older, Bridge. After Christmas Dinner, Etta had the rest of the day off, so in the evening, Ma-Maw laid out fruit, crackers and cheese – this is where I had my first taste of Camembert, a taste that took a few years to grow on me.
I spent my first Christmas away from home in Laguna Beach California, visiting my boyfriend. The brown hills had Christmas lights strung on them, but they looked fake and arbitrary in sunny California. On Christmas Day, we ate Beef Stroganoff. It didn’t feel like Christmas to me.
Ma-Maw died and Christmas was never the same. She had spent hours decorating each gift with fancy bows and ribbons, chosen her wrapping paper carefully, and decorated the table lavishly. Granted, she had a maid, so she didn’t have to think about the more exhausting aspects of Christmas preparations or clean-up. After her death my mother reminisced about even more elaborate, extravagant Christmases of her own childhood when there were so many people at the table (or tables) that they needed two turkeys, and Pa-Paw and Uncle Bob had intense disagreements over how best to carve them.
Then I left the country for eleven years. My first Christmas abroad was spent in Jerusalem where I was living in a spare room in an institution for delinquent boys on Kfar Orah, a hill just outside the city. I could see Bethlehem between the hills in the distance and it did seem that there was a bright star above it. But everyone was Jewish and nothing happened on Christmas Day.
After that, I spent ten years in Greece, where Christmas was a feast day, but minor compared to Easter, when everyone went to church late on Easter Eve, the priest opened the church door and announced “Xristos anesti!” (Christ is risen!) and lit candles of the worshippers, who then turned to each other to share the flame, and everyone walked home, creating glittering lines of light along the hillsides and streets. They had a feast of lamb and a special soup, and retired well after midnight.
I attended the Anglican Church while I lived in Athens, and got a taste of Christmas carols and the sentiments so familiar to me, but the big Anglican celebration came on Boxing Day, which holds no nostalgia or meaning for me.
Back home, now a mother and wife, I did my best with Christmas, but was overworked and poverty-stricken, and the labors of Christmas, scraping together the money to buy a few paltry gifts, exhausted and depressed me, especially with Christmas music banging into my ears for months before the big event, the celebrations made of pure tinsel with little light.
One Christmas we went to Sea Ranch in California to celebrate with my son and his family, including my two grandchildren. Preparing a Christmas turkey and all the fixings (did you ever stop to figure out how many fixings there are?) in somebody else’s kitchen was fun but frustrating, and afterwards, when we were getting ready to go home, we got a notice that we could not just dump the Christmas tree in the surrounding grounds (fire hazard) and were left to dispose of a good-sized tree, which took a lot of effort, research, and pine needles all over the inside of the car.
Now, I like the way my own church celebrates Christmas. It is a mixture of the pagan and the Christian. The pagans celebrated the dark of winter, the quiet time for reflection and reverie, dreaming of the new warmth that would return in the spring. Winter was then a time of rest, being inside, telling stories, repairing the bridles and axles that had worn out during a busy growing season, and family. Central heating and the electric light bulb have severed our tie to the spirit of winter.
We have a Christmas Eve service full of song, from Handel to gospel. We turn off all the lights and share the light of a candle the way the Greeks do at Easter – lighting the first one on the chancel and then turning to our neighbors to share the flame. We sing Silent Night quietly in the dark, and then we eat cookies and drink wassail and go home.
My son has divorced, and his children are with the family of their mother for Christmas, so even if I wanted to be like my own grandmother, who brought enhanced Christmas into our home, I couldn’t. It’s okay. In this season I reflect in gratitude upon the glory of the electric light bulb.