Just a little something I put togetherIn the years since my father’s death I’ve found myself chasing Christmas. My father was Christmas, even in the middle of July he always had the twinkle in his eye. When we lost him that late April night my thoughts quickly drifted to December, dreading what had been (up until that moment) my favorite time of year.
Growing up each December was the same. All 5 kids and our parents would climb into the minivan and head to a local Christmas tree farm to pick and chop down a tree. It could be as high as Dad’s hand could reach over his head and as fat as we could possible find. The harder it was to get in the front door the better. After years of battling with the tree stand we finally screwed a hook in the living room wall to tie the tree to wall and keep it upright. It stayed there all year; Christmas was always in our house. Decorating the tree was always special, each ornament had a story and each kid had a favorite. We listened to Christmas music on vinyl, not because it was cool it was just what we had. The star was a hand me down from his childhood tree, it was hideous but we loved it. When we were done we always begged Dad to go light with the tinsel but he loved it. If he could the tree would have a pile of tinsel and flashing lights. It wasn’t until we got a dog and tinsel became forbidden that he gave up that fight. I never understood why he loved it but I knew his childhood tree was covered in the tinsel that his father couldn’t get enough of.
Every night before bed we would place an ornament on our Advent Calendar tree and read the corresponding bible verse. We saved the star for Dad to place on Christmas Eve, working 60+ hours a week he missed most of the previous ornaments which made the star all the more special. Every day we would count the days left until Christmas on that calendar, we would analyze the remaining ornaments thinking about what we would pick when our turn came around again being sure not to tell our siblings so they didn’t take it first. Nothing said Christmas was coming like seeing that burlap and felt calendar hit the wall.
As Christmas Eve approached we started the mad dash to clean the house, and keep it clean! Santa can’t put your stocking on your bed if your room isn’t clean you know! But even inch of the house had to be cleaned as ours was the gathering place for our extended family and church family. Cookies and pies would be baked. Soda chilled on the porch. 20lbs of ham, 20lbs of turkey, meatball & baked beans from scratch & lasagna from B.J.’s. We opened our doors after the early church service at All Saints Episcopal and closed them as we all filed out to make the 11PM service (or go to bed). But every year, before church or bed Dad read The Night Before Christmas and placed the star on the advent calendar. That is when the excitement really started to boil over. Kids would scatter to beds unable to sleep, listening for sleigh bells.
On Christmas morning we all shot out of bed as early as we possibly could. I believe 6AM was the latest we would let them sleep. They would wake to the sounds of cap guns exploding and the smell of (really bad) fresh brewed coffee. We each found our pile of gifts and opened one at a time. Dad was perched at the end of the couch, his hair as crazy as ever, a coffee in one hand a cigarette in the other (it was the 90s, don’t judge) leaning over quietly observing each and every reaction to each and every gift. We knew Dad worked a lot, we knew a seven person family was not normal in our area, we knew that no matter what was put under that tree it came from hard work that actually required sweat (and maybe some tears). We knew our parents worked their butts off to make Christmas special. In the 80s they pawned class rings and waited in line for the elusive Cabbage Patch Dolls. Another year they attempted to push a paddle boat up the stairs into the house (I’m not kidding, it was wedged in the hallway for the rest of the winter). Even my senior year of high school, well beyond my Santa years my stepmother camped out at Wal-Mart so they could afford to buy me a color TV fit to bring to college. They always made Christmas special, even when I asked for a Sony Sport Walkman but received the off brand imitation yellow Walkman I was thankful. I could still listen to Kris Kross on the bus and I still had plenty of gifts left to open.
When dad died all of that was over. The house eventually sold and with it went those magical Christmas Eves. Christmas in your early 20s with no family home is hard. It was hard to find a way to fit in. I held on hope that when I had kids the magic of Christmas would return.
4 years after we lost Dad I met the love of my life. Our Christmases were anything but ordinary, we were married the day after our first Christmas together, we moved 1000 miles south the day after our second. It wasn’t until our third that we could actually get a tree have a proper family holiday. By then we were 3000 miles from where we had grown up so it was a quiet “just us” Christmas. Our fourth Christmas was spent by me entertaining my sister and brother in law in from the east coast and my husband entertaining terrorist in the Middle East. I was 8 months pregnant with our first daughter and nothing I did could muster up any Christmas cheer.
Time goes by, we welcomed a baby girl and spent the next Christmas skyping with family while she opened presents. It was nice but it wasn’t really Christmas. By the next Christmas we had moved again and celebrated with our daughter and her one week old sister. I was too tired and sore to even look for Christmas spirit.
Another year passed and Christmas started to have that familiar spark. Our daughters were starting to understand, I baked cookies and pies and ham and turned what had been my father’s tradition of fried dough for breakfast into my own tradition of frying up donuts. The Advent Calendar was placed on the wall and it gave me a thrill to watch them pick what had been my favorite ornaments to place. We decorated the tree drinking egg nog listening to Christmas music. The spark was back but not the full love of Christmas.
Two more years have passed and we have moved back home, close to our families and friends but I still find myself chasing Christmas. I am holding on the notion that I have to give them the same experiences that I had or their holidays will be ruined. But I have to admit, a tree cut down at the farm looks just as nice as the trees we bought from a tree stand. Every year I am letting go a bit more of what I thought Christmas should be (exactly what I had as a kid) and embracing what Christmas actually is for my kids. As they grow our traditions will be born and some may die out but what I really hope is if one day they unwrap an off brand Walkman they will love it just as I did and know that we give them as much as we can. They will look at me perched on the couch with my coffee with genuine gratitude.
This will be the 15th Christmas since we lost Dad but the first that I fully understand his love of tinsel. Thank you Dad, a childhood so happy I want to recreate it for my kids is the best gift I never even had to ask for.