Most families have holiday traditions. Ours come in little pieces.
Around two weeks ago, we decided the time had come, bundled everyone in the car on ten minutes notice, and ventured into the cold to buy a Christmas tree. The ride is longish in rural Ohio, and we had time to listen to almost all of Jean Shepherd's Duel In the Snow, the original essay that inspired the movie, A Christmas Story. I love hearing it, although Dick Cavett's reading isn't up to my memory of Jean Shepherd voice on the radio when I was a kid in New York. But my husband and kids - or my now adult son and his almost teenage brother - still love it. And the story fit nicely between choosing the tree and stopping for hot chocolate and bagels. There was just enough snow to turn the beanfields white.
And then there was the Christmas concert, where I played with friends at a church miles away that I only visit once a year for this service. It's a little tiny church, with a Filipino pastor and a host of children with wonderful voices who love to sing Feliz Navidad as we drum, and fiddle, and pound on dulcimer and mandolin. Every year one of the anthems will catch me unawares and touch me somewhere I didn't know was still open to that sense of wonder I would always feel this time of year as a kid.
The cookies were Sunday. My husband's family always made beautiful rolled cookies, painted with egg tempera. We've done it every year since my son was little and we were too far away to bake them with his family. The recipe's simple: any rolled cookie dough, go wild with the cookie cutters, then paint the raw dough with (new!) paint brushes dipped in egg yolks mixed with food coloring and a drop or two of water. It takes the guys hours, each competing to see whose cookies can be the most elaborately whimsical. You get extra points for turning the little girl cutout into superman or the angel into a realistic Santa. I always wind up rolling the dough and manning the stove, but have lots of time to watch, because a simple pan of a dozen cookies can take them an hour or more to paint. This year I managed a batch of biscotti and a pan of gingerbread in between pulling their masterworks out of the oven. The best part is the end, when there isn't enough dough to cut any more, and you just get to doodle on the leftovers.
Yesterday we went to the movies - all of us to a Disney film we were far too old for. Burgers and shakes beforehand. Piling into the car and listening to carols on the way. Shared laughter together. Moans as we returned home to find the dog had found - and eaten - the cornbread.
Today was the Solstice. We have always traveled for Christmas - all through graduate school and our many, many moves and now into our 29th year of Christmases as a family. So the Solstice is a day when just we four - parents and kids - eat a wonderful dinner, listen to music, and exchange a few presents. All the gifts are small. Some of them are homemade. Everything is very low key. We sat around the fire and read comic books, ate chips and dip, and play a new board game. One of the nice things about celebrating a holiday that nobody else does it that you can do anything you want and it's okay. And it was.
We travel in a few days and will be with my family to go to church and open presents on Christmas Eve and with my husband's family for Christmas. We'll eat food, and probably squabble, and spend way too much time in the car. It will probably be the last time my eldest sees his grandparents before he heads off for a few years in the Peace Corps. Or perhaps the last time he sees some of them. Christmas always seems to hold some bittersweet. You can hear it in the songs.
None of these Christmas traditions are big or splendid or fancy. They probably wouldn't make great cards. None of them took that long - a couple hours, here and there, including a lot of it eating. Most of them are done catch as catch can, on the spur of the moment, but reminiscent of what happens every year. They are flexible, so if something happens a little different this year, that's okay.
Because the present giving is so spread out, that's a pleasant part of it - and certainly one my youngest - and probably all of us - eagerly awaits. But it's not the main part of it, with that splendid rush of excitement and the almost inevitable crash and burn of torn wrapping paper and disappointment. We don't give a lot of presents. It's something we could never afford to do and something that now the kids don't expect. Quirky and thoughtful are probably the two words that best describe them. That's okay.
And not one of these holiday moments will be perfect. But because there are lots of smaller moments, they don't have to be. If one winds up being a disaster or ends in a fight or a bad meal or doesn't happen this year at all, there'll be another chance. Together, these moments are warm and pleasant and remind us of things past and things we care about now.
And, to me, that's a much more manageable happiness than striving for that one perfect, shining holiday where everything has to be just right.
© 2010 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved