Tuesday, December 07, 2004

the looming shadow of Christmas

(I wrote this essay about Christmas last year. It still expresses pretty closely the way I feel at about this time every year...)

I had my first Christmas thought of 2003 on June 25th - way too soon to get excited. Now, however, almost six months later, thoughts of Christmas have changed from distant and anticipated to imminent and (I must admit) a little dreaded. This season of celebration can cast a large and sometimes threatening shadow.

I’ve always thought of myself as a fan of Christmas. So why this ambivalence? Maybe it has to do with the five types of Christmas season I’ve experienced, and the remnants of Christmas past that I can’t seem to put down.

OLD FARM CHRISTMASES are bathed in the warm glow of earliest memories. The arrival of the Eatons Catalogue began the anticipation. The first snow, preparations for the school concert, parcels mysteriously sneaked into the house under bed-sheets, sounds of sawing and smells of paint from the basement - all helped ratchet-up the excitement.

Finally – when the Christmas concert was done and we’d survived the last few days of high expectancy – Christmas morning. I would awaken way too early and listen, in coiled suspense, to the sounds of the day slowly unwrapping: Daddy going out to do chores, Mom clattering in the kitchen, my brothers talking and laughing. Finally we were allowed downstairs. But the sight was always worth the wait, for the dining room had been transformed into a toy wonderland and, with that sight, the Christmas bar set forever high.

Of course, that bar remained safely out of reach during the series of OUT-OF-KILTER CHRISTMASES that followed. After years of idyllic and predictable childhood celebrations, it’s easy to see how spending Christmas Eve on an Air Canada flight or Christmas Day asleep because you’re working the night shift, feels entirely un-Christmas-like.

Through the years, Out-of-Kilter Christmases continue to pop up. The first year we decided to spend the holiday away from home, I wrestled with: do I decorate the house or prepare Christmas baking; do we open gifts before we leave, wait till we get back, or lug them, unopened, with us?

Of course Out-of-Kilter Christmases also have advantages. I discovered that snow isn’t essential to the holiday and adding new customs, like a yearly Christmas brunch with friends, can be a wonderful addition to the season.

It’s a little harder to see the advantages of the DISASTROUS CHRISTMAS. Now I’d be the first to admit that on the seismic scale of Christmas disaster, my worst would rate only about a 4.5. But any disaster shakes one up at the time. I’ll never forget the Christmas I slipped on the ice and broke my wrist just before our annual broomball game. Or the year the disposable aluminum roaster sprang a leak, spilling greasy pan drippings onto the hot element just as I was pulling the fully-cooked goose out of the oven.

Of course, once the kids came along, disasters, minor at least, became the rule rather than the exception. It was no fun nursing a seven-year-old through the stomach flu Christmas day when all the special flavors and fragrances of the celebration only made him feel worse. But even Disastrous Christmases have their upside. That year as I comforted my young sufferer, I had time to reflect on the fact that this whole season had its genesis in what must have seemed like a disaster - a young woman, going into labor in a strange overcrowded town and finally giving birth in a barn.

Admittedly, though, Out-of-Kilter and Disastrous Christmases have, in more recent years, been supplanted by the HOUSE BEAUTIFUL / EMERIL LEGASSE CHRISTMAS – or they should be, imply TV specials, magazine features and lavish store displays.

I bought whole-heartedly into this Christmas mind-set when I was a stay-at-home Mom with young kids. What better way to brighten dreary autumn months than to stock up on Christmas fabric and join the crafters? During a several-year stretch I went from putting together gift baskets filled with homemade baking and preserves for all my neighbors one year, to renting tables at craft fairs the next, to making bathrobes or track suits for my whole little family the third, which, I guess, burned me out for I haven’t done anything that ambitious for ages. Old attitudes die hard though. Come October or November, I still find myself capitulating to the ‘should’s’ of trendy Christmas decorating and cooking with at least the token response of painting a room or buying the latest edition of Company’s Coming for Christmas.

Which brings me to my fifth type of Christmas, parts of which are found in all the others - the TRADITIONAL CHRISTMAS. Though many sing the praises of upholding tradition as a way of fostering family unity and identity, I believe one can take the keeping of Christmas traditions too far (remind me NOT to buy a bag of unshelled nuts this year - Daddy’s long gone and I’m the only other person who eats them!). It’s probably this self-imposed aspect of Christmas, more than any other, that makes the holiday season ahead look duty-heavy to me.

However, it’s hard to face the ‘must-do’s’ on one’s Christmas tradition list with Wite-Out in hand. So yearly I engage in a self-debate that goes something like: if I don’t write the Christmas letter, there will be a gap in our family’s history; maybe if I mail-order all the gifts I’ll be able to withstand the pressure of Christmas marketing; but it doesn’t feel like Christmas without shortbread and Nanaimo bars (even though the kids complain of zits and the elders have bulges over waistbands).

So, as I face another holiday season with my hands still full of Christmas past, I wonder how do I face another season of celebration with its high expectations, its potential for disappointment and its ability to exhaust me? Do I have to throw out the old and start over again? Maybe I can do something less drastic. Maybe instead of discarding, I can use bits of all that I’ve assembled to create yet another Christmas celebration. I will call it the CAREFULLY CONSIDERED CHRISTMAS

I will tone down expectations, for I’ve learned that Christmas will never attain the glow and warmth of Old-Farm Christmases. I will pray that I have the wisdom to see the positive side of Out-of-Kilter Christmas moments, and the resilience and humor to deal with Christmas disasters. I will do my best to tune out the clamor of TV shows, shops and magazines as I press and put up the home-made muslin wreath I made in my crafting era, and trim the tree with the dear but non-color-coordinated ornaments assembled over the years. I will again re-examine our Christmas traditions in the light of our changing values and life situation, then tackle the ones I decide to keep with realism. And I will do it all with the generosity and love that God showed when He gave us Jesus that first Christmas.

In fact, now that I look at it closely - isn’t that looming shadow shaped like a tree? Where did I put the box of lights and trimmings, the Christmas CDs, the creche? Is that cinnamon I smell, and shortbread and chocolate? Mmm, I can hardly wait!


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