Ever since my mother died almost 15 years ago (has it really been that long?), and my dad immediately after, and all the family I’ve ever had has either grown up and moved away or flown off into the great beyond, I’ve been trying to figure out what to do at Christmas. It’s a little bit hard to have a huge family Christmas when “huge” and “mother” have been taken out of the equation.
And even though I was the one child out of four who just had to have the precious Polonaise glass Santa ornament (that one of us had chipped, leaving Mom with a broken heart), and the hand-blown teardrop ornaments and glass Christmas trees with the frosted boughs, and the plastic, three-dimensional Sputnik stars, I find that I have no clue what to do with them now that they are mine and mine alone. I have boxes of miscellaneous holiday memorabilia, like the Nativity scene that is missing baby Jesus and two of the wise men, the tall frosted glass candle with the illustration of Mother Mary that we were never allowed to burn because it was so beautiful, the oddball ornaments my mother’s art students made for her and my sister’s strange friends gave to her, but somehow it doesn’t feel right to pull them out each Christmas.
I’ve been looking at my cousins whose parents are still alive— watching them show up for their family rituals, feeling so darn lonely for mine. And even though my aunts have generously tried to fit me in, I’ve been left feeling like more of an outsider than ever.
Their rituals underscore that mine are no longer alive. Having Christmas morning around a tree with chic, twinkling white lights, instead of bold, colorful globe lights, just doesn’t feel the same. The orderly opening of a few choice presents that were carefully selected by one member of the family for another member can never replace the glorious shower of flying wrapping paper that secretly hid the identity of oh-so-many presents. And how can an organized Christmas dinner, where one daughter cooks the casseroles, one the pies, while the mother bakes and bastes the turkey, ever replace those 5 a.m. disputes where my unmarried aunt, holding something wrapped in what looked like a baby blanket, would wake up my mother to ask her how long it— the roast— should be cooked, even though she would always overcook it no matter what my mother said? All the people who sat at our table would sit elbow to elbow and tell stories and not really care that the roast was burned, because the rest of the food was good and mothers didn’t die yet and all was right with the world.
And, OK, maybe I never really liked going to midnight service at the Episcopal church, wearing dresses that crinkled like wrapping paper every time I stood up, then knelt (which you do a lot in an Episcopal church), singing impenetrably tuneless hymns. But still. To have those Christmas Eves back would be wonderful. How fun it would be to wake up to all those glorious presents— ripping them open in a blizzard of ribbons and paper— and then knocking off that entire box of chocolate-covered cherries for breakfast, followed by the nuts and the hard ribbon candy Santa left.
And sure, getting that big Christmas morning present from Mom will continue to be a wish I’ll never stop having. The bicycle. The ping-pong table. One year, my brothers got clarinets, my sister got a guitar and I got a ukulele. They all became musicians and I became the writer who wrote funny things, like about getting that ukulele for Christmas. To have that ukulele back now would mean everything to me.
And, oh all right, even though I rolled my eyes when Mom crammed my brothers and sister into the car to go visit those frail little aunts on Christmas afternoon— the ones who never had presents for us, but had a busload of Pecan Sandies, year-old marshmallow Santas and enough jelly beans to last a month— I’d give my eyeteeth to be able to get in the car with my mother so we could go visit them today.
And, oh, for the day after Christmas when our extended family would…
[continue to read Christmas Rituals].