On Giants' Shoulders

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Isn't Always Happy

I've been pondering, not the unhappiness surrounding our Christmas, but the unhappiness that must cast a bit of a shadow over the Christmas of some of the people I care about. I just found out last month that my cousin who lost his wife of over 30 years a few years back had remarried and then been divorced by his new wife 3 months later. He will certainly probably spend Christmas with some of his children, but there's got to be an empty space in his heart as well. My brother-in-law is celebrating his 7th Christmas without my sister. Now I'm sure he will spend some of the time with his daughter and her in-laws, but he's a fairly shy guy and I'm sure that celebrating in the midst of someone else's Christmas isn't all that much fun for him.

I've only spent one year in the middle of someone else's Christmas. It was the year my father died and my mother and I were staying temporarily at my aunt's. What I realized is just how hard it is to be in someone else's space, in the midst of someone else's traditions. It happens to most of us once we get married and spend the requisite Christmas with the inlaws, yet usually we manage a bit of our own celebration as well. When death intrudes (especially when it does so close to Christmas) it can put a pall over the whole celebration. My husband's mom also died close to Christmas 5 years ago, so my Christmas more than once has been surrounded by the shadow I'm talking about.

I think that the secular nature of much of the festivities actually makes the pain worse. When you are spending your time focused on the actual event that we are celebrating it's possible to remind yourself that death is not the end, that the Incarnation was about bringing us an inestimable gift that death cannot take away. I'm pretty sure my cousin (who's a Protestant pastor) is spending his Christmas focused on the right things, and will be less busy than he was as a young dad many years ago. Yet I'm also sure that he's missing someone whom it feels like should be there.

It's possible to get so focused on the "perfect Christmas" that we forget that for some people even a tolerable Christmas will be hard to pull off. We've had the odd Christmases here. The year my husband was in the hospital with a broken leg is one example. This Christmas will seem a little odd as well because my daughter's family won't be here for the first time. I've also been too sick this month to really pull off anything close to the perfect Christmas. However, I've been sort of hoping for a Christmas miracle of peace and joy not only for us, but for the lonely people out there for whom Christmas can seem mostly like a day to be endured. My prayer is that the O Antiphon for today will really be true for them: "Oh Key of David, O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of Heaven. Come break down th prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and lead your captive people into freedom." Isaiah 22:22.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Traditions, Choices or Impositions

I've been watching from a slight distance as my daughter incorporates new traditions into their holiday celebrations. She's made a Jesse Tree (something I once attempted and failed at miserably), has decoupaged the O Antiphons, will be making St. Lucy's bread from my friend Karen's recipe, and has purchased a nice Nativity set. She's made either a conscious, or unconscious decision to drop some of our traditions (like not setting the Nativity up until Christmas Eve, and bringing the tree in earlier than we do). It's made me think again a little bit about our own "traditions." What I realized as I did so is that they came from various places, that like her and her husband we made conscious choices to embrace some things that neither family had done, and we kept some parts of both families traditions as well. As I watched Alton Brown last night talking about Christmas foods I had to laugh because some of his Christmas foods were things like Wassail that were attempted here, but essentially bombed (should we give that tradition one more try before we discard it entirely, I wondered last night), were things we've never done (like oyster stuffing) because the whole idea was distasteful to some one or another of the participants, or were something he found a substitute for (a duck is not a goose Alton!). His traditional foods mostly came straight out of Dickens (and he had Dickens there to prove it!). Some of our traditions (like plum pudding) came straight out of Dickens as well, neither of our families ever attempted them. except for a very small number of things (like plum pudding). For years we've made my mother's Christmas bread (which my son told me last year that he really dislikes) and my father's omelet (which my daughter admitted a couple of years ago that she's not all that fond of). Other than that our traditions were my in-law's traditions Christmas Eve church, decorating the tree on Christmas Eve, and Auntie's tea cookies or shared traditions like Christmas stockings, tree, and mince pie. We've experimented with Christmas dinner for years. My parents always did ham or turkey, we started with turkey, but switched to roast beef because it was easier. In recent years my son started clamoring for goose, so we did both roast beef and goose, which was harder than just doing a turkey. Chesterton talks about tradition being the democracy of the dead, so by bringing in things that former generations did were we being somewhat democratic, taking our elder's opinions into account, I think we thought so.

But, wait a minute, just how far back did any of those family traditions actually go? The Christmas tree and stockings probably made it back to at least my parent's generation on 3 of the 4 sides. My maternal grandparents didn't do Santa Claus, stockings or a Christmas tree. I guess that probably the only solid universal was of all things, the mince pie (which the Puritans tried so hard to suppress). My parents and my in-laws actually embraced parts of Christmas celebrations that none of their parents or grandparents had embraced. They made choices we followed a lot of the choices they made. In many respects it almost seems like their choices were based in large part on how the culture as a whole celebrated the Christmas season rather than for any specifically religious context other than the Christmas Eve service that my in-laws routinely went to (I've got to ask my husband whether they actually did that when their kids were little, I'm not sure). Our church had a Christmas program at some point during the holiday season (always before Christmas, we didn't "do" Advent), but that was more a bone of contention than a joyful thing, since my mother could rarely get my father to go to it.

Our choices (other than the Dickensian ones) were based more on trying to have a religiously based holiday. We read books like Clem the Clumsy Camel, Born in a Stable, Santa are You for Real, instead of poems like Santa and the Christmas Mouse. I remember making a felt banner to put up at the beginning of Advent one year and we tried repeatedly to have an Advent wreath. Doing the readings seemed to peter out pretty quickly every year and the wreath itself became a fire hazard long before Christmas. We waited until Dec. 24th to set up the Nativity set and baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph didn't arrive until after church on Christmas Eve. The Wise Men didn't arrive until Epiphany and the tree stayed up until at least then, while everyone else's trees were in the garbage at least by New Year's.

We didn't do Santa Claus the way that my parents and grandparents did. Rather we put the emphasis on Jesus's birthday and read the story of the real St. Nicholas.

Through the years things have gotten dropped, things have been added, and things have inevitably changed. We no longer have 10 or more people around the table on Christmas Day. This year there will only be 4 of us. There are foods we've tried in the past, but don't bother with anymore. There are things like sugar cookies with frosting that my mother always did, and that I did when the kids were little, that just don't seem to make it onto my list of things to do. However, because none of those things are of particularly long tradition they don't seem like a huge loss.

What would seem like a loss (and did to my daughter a couple of years back when she was ragingly sick on Christmas Eve)would be to not go to church. In a family sense it's not a tradition of longstanding, but for us it's an important choice we've made (even before it was a Holy Day of obligation for some of us).

I sometimes wish that we had traditions that went back for several generations. I wish we really had a family history where we could participate in that kind of democracy of the dead. I wish there were a history of reading the Gospel of Luke on Christmas Eve before bed instead of a tradition of frantically wrapping presents. My daughter is doing far better there than we have. Her gifts were all purchased by December 1 and she's spending Advent doing meaningful Advent things. I'm scarcely half finished with my shopping and I can absolutely guarantee that my husband and son haven't even begun. However, that seems to be an important part of making someone feel like Christmas around here. That last minute hustle is apparently an important part of the tradition to my husband (his family were all last minute shoppers as well). What we seem to have to a large part is traditions that are one generation or so old. Yet, I think to my children there was a sense of we've always done it this way, that some people don't have. At least I hope that's the case.

My mother and my in-laws were very good about not imposing Santa Claus when we said we'd rather not do that particular myth. I hope that my children never feel we are imposing something on them (or their children) that they'd rather abandon. Traditions are important in helping us to remember that we are celebrating and even in helping us focus on what we are celebrating (there actually was a symbolic reason for many of the foods associated with Christmas). However, a tradition that's only one generation old is certainly one that can be examined and discarded. For example, my mother's Christmas bread (which we've always had on Christmas morning) was not something we had on Christmas all the time at my own house. It was a bread my mother made for her Home Dem club Christmas party every year. She only made it for us once in awhile. The omelet we have on Christmas morning was one that my father made yearly, just not necessarily on Christmas. In point of fact I don't really remember Christmas morning breakfasts all that vividly at all. They were far more ceremonial in my current family than in my birth family. Christmas dinner was a far more memorable thing. So, if I abandon Christmas bread this year since it my son doesn't like it, my husband is ambivalent about it and my daughter isn't going to be here, will I be abandoning something of import? I hardly think so. Can my daughter actually secretly rejoice that she's going to miss the plum pudding (which she's never really liked all that much) and decide never to make it for her own family? Of course. Plum pudding was something I introduced, she doesn't need to keep that tradition going. Does she have to have oyster stew on Christmas Eve? Well she's scarcely likely to since her husband doesn't eat shell fish. Will we continue to have it? Oh, yes, we will, not because of tradition, but because it's something I really look forward to. Could she decide to do a Buche de Noel instead of plum pudding, certainly.

What if, like some families we know, they decided to abandon Christmas tree or Christmas stockings. Wouldn't that really be denying the democracy of the dead? Well, probably not really. Christmas trees really never made it into anything other than Lutheran celebrations before the 19th century and Christmas stockings aren't a whole lot older. I'd be more concerned if they abandoned the creche or Christmas church. The fact is that all of the traditions surrounding Christmas really are for the most part a matter of choices made by families within just a very few generations. If the choices of the current generation are somewhat different out of a conviction of trying to make Christmas more about the Savior then I have nothing but kudos for the attempt.

As Catholics we have traditions from all over the world to choose from. My daughter's husband has Irish, Yugoslavian, and Puerto Rican roots. If they choose to add some of those elements to their Advent and Christmas celebrations it would be entirely appropriate, just as it's been appropriate for us to look back into English cultural history and add plum pudding, goose, and oysters to ours.

I think the only time that Christmas makes me sad and tired is when I'm trying to live up to someone else's rules and expectations. My in-laws really imposed very little, but one thing which was intended to make things easier was an imposition of sorts. It made me tired when I had to do all of the shopping for my kids when they were little because the family gave us money for the parents to spend instead of shopping themselves. It made me sad and when I felt like I had to buy more for my sister's family than I felt I could afford, but wasn't allowed to buy for my sister-in-law's family that I was closer to. Last year I actually sort of enjoyed Christmas because I did a whole bunch of knitted gifts, and did a lot of the rest of my shopping online. What I realized is that while I like giving gifts, I don't really enjoy shopping. This year I've decided I'm only doing the things I actually enjoy and find meaningful, and I'm doing them on my schedule (which is why the plum pudding still isn't made!). It doesn't mean I'm ditching tradition. We'll still have a tree, a goose, plum pudding and mince pie. We'll still have presents, we'll still go to church. However,I'm not stressing that the plum pudding wasn't done on Stir Up Sunday, nor that the Christmas cards haven't been addressed. I want to spend Christmas in a peaceful fashion with people I love. We'll find some new ways to do he day after Christmas this year. I'm campaigning for goose and plum pudding on Christmas, roast beef and mince pie on St. Stephen's Day and oyster stew before church and eggnog around the tree after Midnight Mass.