As a kid I wasn’t that into Christmas. My parents were divorced, and every year there was some push and pull about when I was going to be where. I found it stressful, and in general found the expectation that I be happy and grateful and sweet stressful too. I can remember from a pretty early age opening presents and reminding myself — act happy, act sweet, smile, say thank you. It was a lot of pressure, opening presents. It probably didn’t help that neither my father or my mother really seemed to like the holiday either. My dad was vocal about disliking the holidays, and my mom resisted even simple traditions. We didn’t even have a Christmas tree, though I begged for one every year. She said we were too poor for a tree, and while we were poor, I am pretty sure we could have come up with something. One year a friend of hers informed her that she HAD to get her grade school daughter a tree, and so that year we had one and I reveled in it. We didn’t have any decorations so I made them. I made popcorn and cranberry strings, and hung pictures from the branches. But the next year, we were back to no tree. She even gave me a lump of coal and nothing else one year when I was a teen. Another I was surprised to see multiple boxes piled up for Christmas — I was used to just getting one present from her — only to open them and find out one was a real present and the rest were half-empty wrapped cereal boxes and such. Which is all to say, Christmas really isn’t my thing.
But my stepmother did introduce me to a different kind of Christmas. Some of it made me uncomfortable. Like, she seemed to assume I believed in Santa for years (my mother told me there was no Santa when I was in kindergarten, the year of my parent’s divorce) and I didn’t really know how to respond to that. But some of it was pretty cool. We’d bake sugar cut-out cookies each year and decorate them, and that was fun. Or we’d decorate the tree together (there was always a tree at her and my dad’s house) and talk about each ornament as we put them up, telling the same little stories about them each year. We’d also sip hot cocoa and listen to a recording of Dylan Thomas reading a Child’s Christmas in Wales. I thought this was astonishingly boring, though I didn’t have the nerve to tell her that, but even then I sort of appreciated that we did it every year. I liked traditions as a kid, little routines you did every year, and I didn’t get enough of them from my mom and dad.
As an adult I didn’t make a big deal of Christmas for the most part. It was more stressful than anything. But then my husband and I had a baby when I was 38, and from the start, I knew how I wanted to do Christmas with him. As an adult, Christmas is a little internal check list for me. I have the traditions in my head, and I try to make sure each one happens. I try to ride the balance between festive, and not too stressful for me. Like, we bake and decorate gingerbread cookies each year. Not a million different delicious cookies. That would stress me out too much. But we do the gingerbread every year, and then have a little family decorating party for them where we share memories about decorated cookies in years past. A lot of it feels exhausting to me, but I try not to let on about that to my kid.
And it must work, because he LOVES Christmas. He looks forward to it, and he seems to relish in it all with unselfconscious joy. He loves the decorations we bring out each year. He loves his advent calendars (three this year — the wooden tree where he puts up an ornament each day, a Lego calendar, and a fidget calendar). He loves “decorating day” where we decorate the living room for Christmas, telling stories to each other about each one as we bring them out. I feel like I’ve done something right when it comes to him and Christmas. I’ve broken a cycle, and I can’t help but feel good about that. As the years pass, I even find myself starting to take pleasure in some of the traditions we’ve built together. And that’s something to celebrate.