“Merry Christmas, goddammit!” (and other family Christmas traditions…)

I guess a lot of people probably yearn for the “picture perfect” Christmas – the Christmas of Hollywood movies and Christmas carols – where snow falls gently outside the window as chestnuts roast over an open fire, and where a “functional” family sings merrily together around a piano, sipping cocoa and buttered rum, kissing attractive people under mistletoes, and opening presents that contain diamonds and keys to sports cars.  But, for me, the best moments of Christmas have always been unplanned, spontaneous, laughter-laden, and love-filled.  I don’t think you can plan the best moments – you just have to be open to them, and be ready and willing to embrace them.

I met my husband, Scott, at a wedding two weeks before Christmas (he was the wedding photographer and I was the singer).  When I learned that his family was on the east coast, I invited him to join my family for Christmas. He arrived at my parents’ home with  a bottle of kahlua (which took Scott and my dad 10 minutes of concentrated teamwork to uncork), and he brought me a sturdy iron frying pan, all wrapped up in Christmas paper with a pretty bow stuck on it.  I found his choice of Christmas gift kind of intriguing.  Frying pans are not the kind of gift one usually sees advertized in jingly commercials at Christmastime.  Some men might try to win over a woman with the prosaic and expected, but obviously Scott was not one of those men.(In fact, the most precious gift he ever gave me for Christmas was The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. It maybe doesn’t glitter or shine, but it is an acknowledgement of who I am, and I’ll always treasure that book.)

We had been married for almost eight years when our first child was born, and we were both getting kind of long in the tooth by the time he arrived.  The Christmases of childhood had long gone – the sparkly lights  no longer seemed as sparkly, the Christmas caroling had ceased altogether, and I can assure you that neither one of us was waking up at 4:00 on Christmas morning with eager anticipation to see what surprises awaited us under the Christmas tree.

Andrew arrived two weeks before Christmas of 1991, and, without wasting any time, he brought us full-tilt into the Christmas spirit.  Suddenly we had a precious little someone to help us experience Christmas with new eyes.

I have a picture of Scott holding Andrew in front of his first Christmas tree.  Every time I look at that picture I’m amazed at how incredibly tiny Andrew is.

Christmas photos in front of the tree have now become one of our family traditions. A couple years after Andrew was born, our second son arrived.  Our yearly pictures of the two of them in front of the Christmas tree have provided a photographic history of our sons’ growth.  There they are, in their footy jammies, big grins on their faces at the ages of 2 and 5, holding their loot. There they are several years later, half as tall as the tree, grins still on their faces, although now with gaps in their smiles where baby teeth had been. And there they are as teenagers, stoically posing for their mom’s annual Christmas picture, trying really hard not to roll their eyes – the Christmas tree hidden behind their manly height.  It warms the cockles of my heart to see their dear, bristly-haired faces, patiently waiting for Mom to take her friggin’ picture so they can get on with their day.  It is proof of their love. Or proof of their resignation to the inevitable.  Whatever their reason, they’re still letting me pretend I’m the boss.  God bless ‘em.

Since the sons were young we’ve had the tradition of opening one special present on Christmas Eve, and the rest of the gifts on Christmas morning.  The sons used to get up at four in the morning and run into our room and bounce around on the bed until we got up. Now they’re the ones sleeping in, and I’m the once bouncing around on the beds, eager to get down to the Christmas tree.

I loved the gifts we got from the sons when they were in grade school: Home-made candle holders and vases, Christmas cards with their small handprints stamped on them, Christmas tree decorations made of clothespins and pipe cleaners.  (Last Christmas I got my first Christmas gift from Andrew, the grown-up – he gave me Homer’s Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale by Gwen Cooper.  It was perfect! – it showed me he knows who his mom is, and that is a priceless thing.)

After we open gifts, we usually head to my Mom and Dad’s for Christmas dinner.

One of our most cherished family traditions began at the folks’ house about ten years ago, initiated by my “little” brother, sentimental fool that he is – whom, for the purposes of this blog, we shall refer to as “PC.”

My brothers and I and our parents all live several hours away from each other, and it always takes a certain amount of strategic planning to arrive at the right time so as to see the most of each other.

Traffic was particularly bad that Christmas morning ten years ago, and my husband and sons and I found ourselves caught in a series of traffic jams. The traffic seemed to get progressively worse the closer we got to my folks’ house – reaching its peak just at the last bridge we had to cross over before we could arrive at their home.  But we did finally arrive, and with great relief unloaded the Christmas packages from our car and went inside to wish everyone a merry Christmas.

Everyone else was there by then, except my brother, PC.

We wondered if, perhaps, he’d gotten caught in the traffic on the other side of the bridge.

An hour or two went by before we finally saw PC’s car bumping along the long driveway up to my parents’ house. We all moved to the back door to greet him as he approached, his arms laden with Christmas gifts. It was obvious as we saw the expression on his face that he had, indeed, gotten caught in the traffic jam.  We learned later that he’d also had a less than pleasant experience with last-minute Christmas shopping. He was not a happy camper.

As we reached out to hug him, the beleaguered PC groused, “Merry Christmas, goddammit!”

And so began another family tradition. We always make sure to greet each other with these profound words every year now. Somehow it just seems to capture the spirit of the season in a way that nothing else can. It’s a greeting laced with acceptance for the unexpected and unplanned, and with memories of the year PC fought his way through traffic and long lines in a department store so that he could bring those he loves gifts one Christmas.

Okay, so maybe our Christmas greeting isn’t something you’ll find in a Hollywood movie, or a Christmas carol. But it seems to work for us.

So, in the words of little Tiny Tim, “God bless us, everyone!” And in the words of my dear brother, “Merry Christmas, goddamit!”

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