Time to Make Plans for the Holidays

I’m thinking about the holidays again and wondering what we should do for Christmas this year (where to go and what to buy for my family). It might be simpler if we had at least some well-established traditions, but it seems that every year we do something different. Some years we stay home and just take off work Christmas day and New Year’s day, saving our vacation days for later. Some years we travel to visit family out of state. Some years we go to Christmas dinner at a friend’s house in town. Some years we dance all week at Christmas Country Dance School in Berea, Kentucky. Depending on what we decide to do each year, we might put up a tree and lights, or we might not.

My family is so spread out that we have a difficult time getting everyone together—me in Missouri, mom in Kentucky, dad in South Carolina, brother in Florida, niece in Pennsylvania, grandchildren in Colorado, one son in Georgia, and another son in Antarctica (until he returns home to Oregon). The last time we all managed to coordinate our schedules and meet at my mother’s house for Christmas was 2008. Even then, two of the grandchildren couldn’t make it because they were with their father. We have never all made it to my father’s place at the same time.

Time to put our heads together and come up with some plans for Christmas.

We also lack solid traditions concerning gift giving. Our family enjoys exchanging gifts, but we don’t like to shop, and we worry about the commercialism and waste that are rampant this time of year. We tend to be fiscally conservative, and we don’t need a lot of stuff to make us happy. Consequently, the gift exchange can be rather random. You never know what you might get (or what you might end up giving). But you can make some reasonable guesses. Books are a favorite, as are calendars, and hand-made journals. Consumable items (fancy teas or fair-trade coffees or other food items) are common. Anything recyclable or environmentally friendly. Often we give donations to favorite charities in each other’s names. We sometimes make things for each other or re-gift family heirlooms or valued objects. We buy from local authors and get them to sign personalized copies for each other. We purchase hand-crafted jewelry or pottery or fiber from local artisans.

You will almost certainly never get trendy new appliances or electronics from any of us. Our family’s gifts will never make the “top ten” list of hot new items. If you want a Kindle or a Wii or an iGrill or an iPad or an Angry Bird, you’ll have to buy it yourself, not necessarily because we disapprove of such gifts but because we prefer to give surprises. Of course, not everyone enjoys receiving surprises. They prefer to know exactly what they are getting. I’m thinking of my older son, who once asked why we spend money on things that others might not even like. Why not skip the whole gift-giving thing, or just give everyone permission to buy ourselves what we really want? Interesting point. We do occasionally give gift cards, especially to grandchildren, or in years when we are completely overwhelmed and incapable of coming up with a more thoughtful gift.

My ideal presents are based on memories of Christmas as a child. We did not have a lot of money, but we had more than some people, and my parents did what they could to make Christmas special. The best gifts were both beautiful and useful. I don’t remember getting a lot of toys, although I probably did. I do remember getting a new doll every year and some kind of game or toy that I had never seen before, that was a surprise to me, one I hadn’t asked for but was delighted to have. I also remember getting gifts such as pajamas or house shoes or a new outfit that, despite their practical nature, were special in some way, if only because they were not hand-me-downs or home-made, like many of our everyday clothes. Then after the excitement of opening presents and stockings had passed, the gifts that I returned to, the ones that lasted, were the books or the paint-by-number sets or the craft items.

The year I got a Chatty Cathy doll and my brother got a Caspar doll for Christmas

In 2008, the year we all decided to meet at mom’s (the first Christmas after her stroke), we did actually skip the traditional gift-giving portion of the Christmas celebration. Since most of us had to spend quite a lot on travel, and since it had been a stressful year in other ways, we decided to “cancel Christmas,” as mom put it, and just focus on being together as a family. Although it felt strange at first, it did take a lot of pressure off, during a hectic time of year. However, since we couldn’t completely let go of the idea of buying presents for each other, we compromised by drawing names and setting a limit of $20 on each gift. (Of course, some people are more fun to buy for than others.)

We also did a white elephant gift exchange, which confused some people but turned out to be a lot of fun. The hot item was a roll of aluminum foil, which my younger son’s girlfriend (now wife) quickly and miraculously formed into a crown, a sceptor, and a sword, impressing us all with her creativity and spirit of fun. My mom said, “Good thing Sandra got the aluminum foil and not me. I would have just cooked with it.”

All I want for Christmas is a roll of aluminum foil.

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A New Year

I have taken down most of my Christmas decorations and packed the ornaments away under the stairs in a plastic box with a green lid. On the lid is a label made of masking tape on which one of my sons once wrote the words, “Traditional Ornaments” in his confident childscript. It always makes me smile, wondering what the word “traditional” means to an eight-year-old. This year I decided to take the time to sort through everything and only pack away those things that still bring me joy. The rest I may sell on Ebay or give away to friends and family. I had already mailed away two small boxes of ornaments and lights to my sons before Christmas. Both have recently moved into new apartments and do not have money to spend on anything frivolous; I thought they might enjoy some of the ornaments we used to hang on our tree when they lived at home. I hope they found some joy in the objects; it was not my intent to burden them with mere possessions.

When I was young, I enjoyed collecting Christmas ornaments to commemorate travels or special moments of my life, and I looked forward to unwrapping the memories each year when I put up my tree. The year my dad moved out, my mother and I both put up live trees for the first time (one in my bedroom and one in the living room), and I bought several ornaments from an import shop in Lexington, Kentucky, for my very own tree: a wooden crèche inside a walnut half; angels made of tiny pinecones spray-painted gold; a small wooden dwarf with a long beard, a tiny pipe, and wire glasses; and several dozen small golden balls. Each year after that I would add to the collection, but I never wrote down where I got each ornament or what it was supposed to commemorate, thinking I would never forget. The years my first husband and I lived in the antique store on a tree-lined street named Rosemont Gardens, I kept the ornaments out year round, on small ledges that lined the kitchen walls and were intended for displaying decorative plates; I was devastated when our puppy chewed up an entire set of German musicians carved out of native woods, leaving only one tiny violin undamaged.For a while, I looked for a replacement set but never saw another just like it.

As I sort through the ornaments, it is most difficult to know what to do with the angels, beginning with the littlest baby angel, a wee blond thing cradled in the crest of the moon, acquired the Christmas after our daughter Megan was stillborn one silent day in May. The following year another baby angel decked our tree, this time a red-headed boy sitting on an acrylic cloud, after we lost our son Morgan in October. And every year after, angels continued to arrive in pairs: ceramic baby angels swinging on candy canes, country angels wearing gingham, angels woven out of straw, paper-mâché angels in stiff gowns, batiked angels, angels embroidered with shiny red threads in China, angels molded out of clear plastic, shimmering gold angels, dazzling glass angels. If they had lived, by now Megan would be twenty-six, Morgan twenty-five. When I meet new people and they ask how many children I have, I still pause (wanting to blurt out “four”) before answering, “two: a son who is thirty and a son who is twenty-three,” all the while seeing the shadowy outlines of their siblings in the space between.