Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmases I Have Known

In 1995, we had no Christmas tree. It wasn't the first time we'd gone without, nor the last, and it wasn’t because the Grinch sneaked in and stole our holiday. Rather, it sneaked up on us when other things got a higher place on the priority list as the year came to a close. Dau # 2 married in September and moved to Logan, and Dau # 1 returned from her LDS mission in October and got married in December. It wasn't a surprise. It had been on the radar screen for several years, but she wasn't making very many decisions about it until she got home, and then everything happened fast. By the time we went out looking for a tree on Christmas Eve that year, there weren’t any. 

Lately I have been reviewing other Christmases I have known.

Guam, an island in the western Pacific, was the scene of our first two Christmases as a married couple. Like Utah, Guam has two seasons. In Utah, it’s freezing cold winter and burning hot summer. On Guam, it’s wet and wetter. Without snow or even a chill in the air, getting in the mood for Christmas in our island apartment was difficult. Real evergreens were simply too expensive, but we had some other representations and substitutes. We went caroling in the hospital with our church group, but not even singing "Jungle Bells," the island version of the old song, could make us feel the holiday mood. Our second Christmas was a different story. We had a six-week-old baby, and our gift to each other, and her, was a new rocking chair, delivered in Santa-like fashion on Christmas Eve.

Possibly the most unusual Christmases we’ve had were the two we spent in Iran, a long time ago, before the revolution. Dau # 1 was about a year old. Our landlord and his family had rented to American Christians before, and were sensitive to our homesickness at that season of the year. We socialized with our Christian friends, but it didn’t ease our heavy-hearted feelings. In a Moslem country, of course, little attention is paid to the celebrations of infidel religions. As we sat there on Christmas Eve, trying not to think about what would be happening back home that night, we heard some noise and giggling at the door, then a knock. I went to see what was going on, and there were the landlord’s children, tugging at a potted pine tree to get it through the door. It was decorated with colorful paper chains and handfuls of cotton. We were so touched that a Jewish family prepared this meaningful gift for their foreign Christian friends. More than a tree, or what it symbolizes, we needed to feel kindness and love, and they certainly gave us that.

Over the years we've tried some other traditions. One year we went out in the hills and cut our own Christmas tree (bad idea unless you don't mind pitch dripping on the carpet) and another year I got my husband a surprise gift  he didn't like because I hadn't cleared it with him ahead of time. (Yeah, that's how he thinks.) But we recovered and forged on. For a few years I experimented with fruitcake recipes to find the most amenable, for a while went through a chocolate dipping phase. Then there is the Christmas bear collection. I don't know when that started, but we now have a stuffed bear for every member of the family. I've tried to get the kids to choose one and take it home, but nobody wants to break up the set. For a few years, my sister and I would make and exchange ornaments, until we both got too busy.

However, the tradition that has stayed with us is the pudding prize. Danish Rice Pudding, an exquisite blend of rice and cream and transcendent bliss, is a tradition of my great- grandfather's homeland. You put one whole almond in the pudding, and whoever gets the almond in his/her serving gets a prize. We've enjoyed that, and the tradition has gone with the kids when they left home.

When the girls left home, our Christmas began to take on a different form of celebration, and if it weren't for our son, we wouldn't have had much at all. When we're not going to be together it's hard to keep up the traditions as enthusiastically as we would if we were going to share them. Son is best described as the Christmas Kid, and his philosophy is, "We need a little Christmas NOW." He'd get out some lights to put on the bushes in front of the house, and decorate the tree, and pretty soon I'd feel like making holiday goodies. Then he left home, too, and some years we didn't get out many decorations at all.

Now we are in transition again, having moved to a new house. I highly recommend downsizing. It's liberating. One good thing about a smaller house is that there's no place for a lot of extra stuff, like holiday decorations. After our first year here, I eliminated half of what I had, and we haven't missed it. So I got a wrought iron tree, about four feet tall, that's strictly for ornament display, and there's space for that in the corner of the living room--no lights, but it works for us. We have an olive wood nativity set and a couple of smaller ones to put on the piano, and the bears sit in the entry.

Through all of that, the ongoing question was "Why are we doing this?" Christmas got better when we released Santa with a vote of thanks and focused on the Savior. Each year it's a challenge to pay attention for opportunities to serve and help others, and we are reassured by the knowledge that, as the Grinch learned, Christmas doesn't come from a store. If Christ isn't already there, no amount of trappings will bring Christmas into our hearts. Over the years we have begun to understand more keenly what Charles Dickens meant when he says through his changed character, Ebenezer Scrooge, “I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all year."


jww said...

I love the phrase "released Santa with a vote of thanks." I'm stealing that. I enjoyed the reminiscing, most of which I already knew. I could hear the Iran story over & over--I love that. (P.S. We got married in 1994, not 95.) I also remember with fondness the ornament sets coming from your sister, but you know how I am about ornaments so that probably doesn't surprise you. You should take a picture of your wrought iron tree and post it. I would love to see it!! I didn't realize it was so tall! FYI, we even took Rice Pudding with us to Michigan two years ago when we spent Christmas there. As you know, Kevin is always disappointed when there isn't enough left over for breakfast. :) That tradition's not going anywhere. I didn't know that Son was the Christmas Instigator after we left home. Doesn't surprise me. And what a good match for Heather. :) We haven't spent Christmas in Utah for years--since Ethan was 1--so we should do that again some time.

Pam Williams said...

Yes, having you here for Christmas would be W-O-N-D-E-R-F-U-L any year you can manage it. I wrote that essay originally in 1995 saying "last year we didn't have a tree," so obviously that's one edit I didn't make to the first version. I'll have Elin take a picture of our tree and send it to you. Kayla and Courtney were here for a couple of hours this afternoon to help me with some last-minute preparations, and they helped me decorate the "presents" I got to put under it. Kayla did a really cute job with the bears, too.