My heart ached a little the other day when my ten year-old niece spent hours crying, pounding the walls and gnashing her teeth over the fact that she couldn't be home for Christmas. Instead she was in a quintassential Tirolian village in the Alps surrounded by snow-dusted mountains, billowing pastries filled with lingonberry jam and her extended family who had lugged plenty of gifts over from the States. But that simply wasn't doing it for her.
Even though my brother and sister-in-law had decorated a tree and held their traditional Christmas Eve party a week early, S was still crushed at having to leave the family home for the holiday. They do have a beautiful home in a stately old neighborhood of Seattle, the kind where the staircases deposit excited children directly into the livingroom on Christmas morning. S likes tradition, repetition, familiarity. And that got me to thinking: What makes Christmas? What do we need in our lives to *feel* Christmas?
I know being home for Christmas doesn't suit all of us. I have a friend in England who finds it so painful, as an only child, to spend Christmas with her dysfunctional parents that she dreams of going to another country for the holiday. I also know plenty of people who have to do a family shuffle on Christmas Day that leaves little time for lounging with new toys by the hearth. When marriages and new families become part of the fold, the logistics on those special holidays can be exhausting.
My parents left the sticky-humid, frigid snow-bound environs of Ohio for the more temperate Northwest when I was a tender six months of age. They left behind their entire extended families shortly after becoming new parents, which says a lot about their rejection of tradition. This was back in the 60's and there was no money or time to go home for the holidays, so my brother and I grew up understanding Christmas to be just the four of us, with sappy Christmas music playing and hours of gift opening in our pajamas. That became our treasured tradition.
As an aside here, if you haven't read about it already, scientists have discovered that our genes can be influenced by our environment and a "switch" can be thrown which will then take us down a genetic pathway that would not have happened otherwise. I'm convinced that my brother's genetic code was influenced early on by this insular tradition of the family Christmas and that it's been passed on now to one of his daughters (it must be a recessive gene because my other niece seems perfectly content to be here with us).
Since my own childhood, I've spent Christmases in a minimally air conditioned Singapore boarding house, a New Zealand bed and breakfast, a Bavarian village with an ambivalent boyfriend, not to mention five different family homes because of our frequent moves. Rather than flip toward tradition, my genes seem to have adapted to change. But admittedly, the best Christmases I remember have been small gatherings in familiar places where the tree is decked with Playdough ornaments we made in grade school and the toilet seat is coverd with a waving Santa.
When we're not in a familiar environment, we still try to recreate that familiarity. This year we attended the Christmas Eve children's service in the Seefeld church where we were treated to four verses of Silent Night by acoustic guitar. The kids wrote a note to Santa and even though we didn't have a fireplace in the house we rented they put out cookies, milk and carrots and we cracked the balcony door so Santa wouldn't have a problem getting in. In the morning my mother made her traditional shrimp and coctail sauce for nibbling on while the kids ripped into their gifts.
At the end of the day my niece said things were good. But then a few minutes later she sighed, "Only 364 days until Christmas." Then she'll be back in her home, her own bed, excitedly leaping down her own staircase. And maybe she's simply a reflection of the original Christmas. After all, isn't the baby Jesus born in that same damn stable year after year? And if you turn "stable" into a verb, it's definition is then "a good state that is not easily changed or likely to change." Maybe my niece has it right and those of us with wanderlust should consider going home for the holidays next year!
" Did you know toilet has the word toy in it?" ZFW, 11/7/14