It’s different for everyone, but at some point there comes a time in your life when you really start to understand the holidays. I’m not talking about the surprising and many times disappointing Christmas discovery when ‘you know the thing’ (shhh!) about ‘him’. What I’m referring to here are all the other truths you discover about holidays in general - big, small and everything in between - fumbling through them one year at a time.
For instance, I’ll never forget how surprised I was when I had my first Thanksgiving meal away from home and realized that the delicious homemade stuffing my mother had been laboriously creating all those years from scraps of bread saved and held frozen for months actually wasn’t the best one out there. Mon Dieu!
Worse yet, years later when I had my own home and family, I learned the hard way that my kids really and truly did prefer stuffing from a box, you know the kind you make in ten minutes from a box full of fake and dehydrogenated things? Once that discovery set in (and, after reviving myself with some very strong adults-only eggnog), I eventually gave in and stopped saving all those bread-butts that make such an interesting mix of homespun stuffing and bought the box that would produce, within ten minutes, a more popular side dish (at least at our table) than any I had ever spent hours creating from scratch. Ouch, that hurt, but oddly it was liberating!
After the "great stuffing realization", other holiday ah-ha moments came and went much easier.
Here's another one - sometimes I don’t even get all the ornaments out to decorate the Christmas tree. You know, all those delicate and expensive mementos I've picked up from my world travels here there and everywhere and painstakingly stored in shatterproof boxing for eleven months? Well, sometimes they end up just staying in those boxes for the twelfth month, too. It’s not that we don’t have a tree, it’s just that, well, my tree ends up simply beautiful, with the word simple being the working adjective.
At minimum, I always put tiny multi-colored lights, red bows, and scatter sprigs of red berries. And, the majestic paper maché angel that was thoughtfully gifted to me by a beloved family member still remains a constant protector on top of our tree.
But some years once I get all that done I just stop and say wow, that’s an elegant looking tree right there! Let’s keep things humble this year. Let’s go low key. And you know what? Christmas comes and goes and everyone likes their presents and the house is a happy holiday haven while friends visit and no one says boo about why the tree isn’t filled to the brim with ornaments. Chalk up another learning experience with or without an adult holiday beverage in hand.
Beyond the blessings of discovering the joy in an 'under-decorated' holiday tree, I've also learned that no matter what I do or don't bake or decorate, the most precious moments I experience every holiday are when I’m just quietly listening to everything else around me. I smile when I see the TV commercials with bells jingling and people bundled up in their down coats and mittens, especially from my warm and sunny sanctuary here in Florida. I sing along to the festive songs on the radio. I pause when I unpack certain household décor items that were passed down from my mother or hand made by the kids and remember the sentiment; that moment in time when it first reached my hands. And more often than not I’m coming to realize that those are the beautiful memories that collectively make my holidays, not the actual day itself, which as we all know, usually takes on a life of its own.
Yes, we have family meals, and yes, we do things together. But here in the Sunshine State, even though all the advertisements in the world would indicate that your holiday is only complete if there’s snow, we never have it. So that rules out sleigh rides, the possibility of reindeer sightings, ice skating (although we do have numerous fake rinks that pop up here and there, but as a gal that grew up in Michigan I can say with confidence, “No thanks!”), bonfires and all those other symbols that the ad agencies keep using to convince us are must haves for celebrating ‘the one and only real Christmas experience.’ Sorry to report but the one and only real Christmas in my world of reality is whatever we create each year.
Sometimes, we’re poolside fixing holiday dinners on the grill. Once we took the kids on a cruise, and one year we all went to Cancun just for the fun of it. And, although it hurts me to admit this, sometimes when we are home on a holiday we even turn on the TV (shhh!) and enjoy our family time after dinner watching something fun and silly. This is the point where I know mom is 'giving me the look', even from her grave, that says "NO TV ON A HOLIDAY!" But this is also when I give thanks for the more leisurely approach I've come to embrace when it comes to our holiday celebrations.
Let’s face it – with family members spread all over the place, we don’t always have big crowds of relatives anymore as was the norm when I was growing up. Our own kids are grown and although they still do come home or travel with us if that’s in the holiday plans, I know that there will come a day when we’re not altogether. Sigh. Just as surely as it happened to me and my parents it will also happen to us. It’s the circle of life, and instead of fighting it I've learned to embrace each holiday that we do celebrate together. Combining those with all the memories I carry of what I remember as perfect past holidays in my youth and, um, let’s just say that those remembrances are the perfect part, even though the homemade stuffing has been forgotten. Amen, and may that time consuming side dish now rest in peace!
But, despite my modern liberal approach to all things holiday, I still do have some hard and fast rules about what I personally do to celebrate:
- I bake cookies. Even if it's only one batch. Even if I'm all alone in the kitchen. That's a home grown memory from my Scandinavian upbringing that I will never give up on. Ever.
- I play Christmas music while I decorate the tree, most likely all by myself. My husband, God love him, just isn't a holiday kind of guy, and after 147 years of marriage, I've come to accept that as a fact. End of story.
- Even if it's 100 degrees wherever we are, I dress for Christmas Eve Mass. First and foremost, this is a religious celebration, and I like to give it the respect it deserves.
- I decorate the house. Out come the candles ( I actually light them, too!), the angel collection, the multi colored glass balls that I use to fill up bowls and containers, and an assortment of other decorations depending on my mood and time. It's my holiday thang, and my joy.
Everything else just falls into place. The entertaining, the social calendar, the gift giving and card writing are all factored in but take on different meanings with each new season. The important part is that I mostly participate in my holiday activities as a salute to my parents who have both passed away but are still very vivid in my memories, especially at this time of year. Because after all is said and done, the true meaning and purpose of any holiday takes place in your mind. You deal with it, embrace it, reject it, cry over it, participate in it, make room in your heart for new customs, schedule for it, and accept it for all its’ highs and lows. Stove Top stuffing and all.
May all the holidays ahead be filled with whatever type of joy works for you!