My next door neighbors don’t put up lights at Christmas at all. Their religion doesn’t recognize the holiday. At the office, we all had a discussion on lights. A good snowball fight side of us preferred the multicolored bulbs to light our Christmas trees and homes, but our editorial department was clearly split. Half vehemently stick with white bulbs, and had a problem with us clowny rainbow decorators.
I was gifted the projector lighting system this season (with remote) and was resistant to turn the side of my home into a disco panel, but now my kids and I have taken in the new tradition as much as our vintage popcorn Santa with reindeer garage door hangings that must go up the day after Thanksgiving. Now we must turn the remote on by 4:30 p.m., before the sun goes down so that the squirrels can have a dance party on our lawn by sunset. It’s our latest tradition.
My point? Everything goes in this country. There’s a right way, and a wrong way, but the only guidebook in the U. S. of A, is that each family has to make it their own tradition.
For Luke, the editor and his wife Liz (editorial) and kids, it’s decorating a Star Wars tree. For Connor, our sports reporter, it’s moving the winning team ornaments up on the tree and the losers down low. (Sorry Browns). For Adriana, in advertising, it’s attending the Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration before Christmas, and for Cami our office manager, it’s going out for drinks and seeing who’s out in Paso on Christmas Eve. Jim, our production manager, who traditionally boycotts every office Christmas party (whom we liken to Statler or Waldorf on the Muppets) looks forward to his wife’s Christmas cookies and leftover turkey each holiday and every holiday when he upgrades his kid’s technology, complaining he probably turned his daughter’s TV speakers into bothersome noisemakers.
We have our made up traditions that my mom and dad pulled out of the sparkly part of their brains. On Christmas Eve my California-based family used to open gifts from my grandparents and attend the night time Catholic mass with children’s choir and Christmas play, which we all took turns acting in. We are a irreverent family, and love to tease my sister, age 11 at the time, (starring as Jesus’ mom, Mary) about having an anxiety attack just as the angel arrived to tell her the good news. My sister bailed that play like a runaway bride.
We rearrange the nativity set so that the wise men wouldn’t fall off the side table. On Christmas day, we would have to all wait on the top of the stairs until Amy and Tom (my siblings who liked to sleep in) woke up, and then we would all find our pile of presents by the tree. The stockings, which my Grandma Regan hand-sewn (every sequin onto felt!) for every member of the family (new baby or married in), were placed on top of the pile. Then each year my parents would say “It’s going to be a modest Christmas,” but somehow (due to my mom’s extra night shifts at the hospital, and my dad’s side jobs teaching at the college after a long day at the lab), the presents were never modest. I remember getting an original Macintosh computer circa 1984 (which I stumbled upon a week before the big day at the bottom of my parent’s closet), a ten speed bike, ‘Star’ Barbie, and a dollhouse with every piece of furniture wrapped up individually. We always received Lifesavers books and called our friends on the phone to compare notes after present opening. As we grew older and would get together with our families, we’d do a white elephant gift exchange from stuff we didn’t want in our house, purpose being no other than making us laugh. The winning ‘worst’ gifts over the years have been a microwave s’more maker, the scandalous Cards Against Humanity game that went to our most ‘pious’ brother and a travel urinal designed for the car, which surprisingly achieved quite a few steals.
Now that I have my own family, we have similar, changing traditions (as the kids get older and wise up on the secrets behind flying sleds and logical delivery wait times). We go to the movies on Christmas day. We eat cracked crab and prime rib on Christmas Eve. We keep our Christmas tree up until New Year’s. We buy mini cable knit sweaters for our dog, Milly. My youngest (the dramatic one) and I attend the Nutcracker. We make gingerbread houses from scratch and keep them on the kitchen table until they’ve been demolished to the foundation. We listen to old school Christmas music 24/7 and fiercely reject any newcomer songs that we don’t recognize.
This year, we took a road trip to San Francisco, where my brother Tom lives, until Christmas Eve. I noticed my brother (the one who used to sleep in and make us wait for our Santa presents) has made his own traditions, namely “Elf on the shelf,” which my nephew said had been curiously tame this year. My brother Tom and his wife, Lindsay, receive a box of gifts for their three sons from Lindsay’s parents in L.A. on Christmas Eve. Another tradition was having his kids (and the rest of us) partake in making care packages for the homeless.
It was a fun time. We were all together, grown-up – eating, drinking, and partaking in new and old traditions when the phone rang. It was Lindsay’s brother. He told her their dad had a heart attack and passed away. My dear sweet sister-in-law, who was hosting all of us and all our children at her house, was apart from her entire side of the family. She had an enormous cry. We all tried to console her. And then she said the most remarkable thing.
“We’re doing the gift exchange,” she said. “I insist.”
Between all the tears, and for sure, one of the worst days of her life, Lindsay had a good laugh. She pawned off a horribly gaudy candy bowl to my brother Joe and said, “Ha! It’s from Gumps. So you have to like it.”
Next year Lindsay won’t be getting that box of gifts in the mail from her dad. The family dynamic has changed. As the new year begins, we can all identify with wanting to hold on tight to the traditions that identify who we are, but mostly, the reason we do it is to be closer to the people who we create these rituals and traditions for in the first place. They may be silly, like re-wrapping weird stuff from our house, but they are ours. Most of life (and death) is out of our control. But the color of lights on our house, or no lights at all – that’s our choice. That is our freedom, what we all have in common, and what makes an American Christmas. You can even call it Festivus if you want. The point is, it’s all yours and all ours at the same time.