With Thanksgiving behind us, it’s full sprint to what I believe we are now supposed to call “the winter holidays.” Which means the grousing has begun over consumerism and forced cheer on one end, and “taking the Christ out of Christmas” on the other. Even if you can tune out Bill O’Reilly, it’s still peak time for crazy-making.
Holidays—while supposedly a simple, charming series of picture perfect moments—are really quite the mess of history, religion, family dynamics, parenting style... Not to mention a regular marital health check-up. They are a magnet for grinches of all sorts. Including someone I may share a roof and a few kids with.
For him, it’s something like this… Valentine’s Day? Hallmark holiday. Independence Day? Fireworks are just an outdated attempt at displaying of our military might. Labor Day? An attempt at disruption the connection between US workers and international unions by switching from May Day to September. And Thanksgiving? With perhaps the most phony origin story of all holidays—a complete fiction that covers up a shameful, bloody history.
Holidays are especially touchy for those of us—a majority of Americans—who don’t attend any sort of regular religious service. Or those whose spouse insists on having their own separate brain.
When not grounded by any particular set of beliefs or place of worship, holidays are a tinderbox near a campfire.
Thanksgiving—the unofficial kick off of obligatory “Happy holidays” greetings—is an odd holiday. The history it hides behind is horrifying. The travel nonsense is head-to-dashboard insanity. And it was bad enough that Black Friday followed, but now we’re supposed to go shopping before our stomachs have settled. But, I hesitate to confess, it has always been one of my favorites, not for its origins, but for the actual way it’s celebrated. I love a day spent in the kitchen, cooking, taking more time to enjoy our food, to be with our loved ones, to slow down.
Whatever their origins, we experience holidays through the way we choose to celebrate—or not. We each have our own personal memories, and they’re never going to be the same as our spouse’s. For anyone who is co-parenting, negotiations ensue about which of the traditions of our parents and grandparents we will pass along to our children and which we would rather leave behind. Add that ball of wax to the list of what we should have— but never would have—discussed while we were still dating.
For me, someone not inclined to decorate beyond a Christmas tree, experiencing holidays as a parent has been an unexpected pleasure, making everything new all over again. My daughter loves parties so much that she tries to give out goodie bags after a play date. And don’t get me started about the name tags she insists our guests wear.
The creation of new traditions is a welcome joy, but also something that feels very weighty to me. Being conscious of building someone else’s memories brings up so many forgotten ones. And I don’t want to get it wrong.
As my husband and I have fumbled our way through creating the kind of holiday experiences we want for our kids, we have landed on a few new traditions that are not from either side’s ancestors, but one’s we have found with each other. We like walking around with the kids to see the local holiday lights, hot chocolate in hand. We like chopping down large green things and dragging them inside, so the tree thing is always nice. And decorating with tiny lights to break through the dark winter nights? That’s my favorite part.
But who knew that my husband’s childhood Santa always left the presents beside the fireplace and not under the tree? I mean, that’s just lunacy, no?
There are many holes in our stories. Our children are particularly troubled by our habit of lighting a fire on Christmas Eve, which would obviously scorch Santa’s behind. Oops!
I hardly remember believing in all of the holiday fluffery, but I do remember learning “the truth.” Sometime early in grade school, I went to my mother in tears because someone had told me there was no Easter bunny. I think she was surprised, actually. “You do know that Santa’s not real either right?” she asked. Apparently I did. A fat man in a red suit? Duh—total fake! A human-size bunny who brings eggs and candy? How could it not be true! I can be charmingly, aka ridiculously, naïve.
There is a lot of double-dealing when it comes to kids and holidays and I don’t have a great poker face. My parents didn’t go to any great lengths to convince us that any of the holiday characters were real. I wonder when my perfectly intelligent six-year-old will call us on this flying reindeer nonsense. For now, I answer her many questions with, “Well, the stories say…” How much lying am I willing do to keep up the façade? I’d hate for her to be the girl on the playground who ruins it for everyone, but someone’s gotta do it, right?
When a friend’s older son asked her point-blank last December, she replied with the very clever, “Ok, I will tell you the truth, but do you want me to answer you before or after Christmas?” Doesn’t take a genius to figure out which way he went on that one. I mean, what if the presents go away when you know who really brought them?
When you don’t have a comfortable religious home or disagree on how to tell the stories (do my kids really need to hear about Krampus?), it can be hard to create something from nothing and make it feel whole. We tripped all over each other before we found our way. And we’re not done yet.
While I won’t deny that holidays can be a time of forced family closeness and phony cheer, having kids has a way of renewing long-lost excitement about those moments we remember fondly. And it’s exciting to get to chose the rest. And then sit back with some egg nog and watch their faces.
I think there are an infinite number of ways to get the holidays right for your family. And really only one way to get it wrong: to forget to stop and look around.