It wasn’t that long ago, at this time of year, a week before Christmas, I’d be deep into making check marks on lists and when I forgot my list, I’d make more lists. It was the one time of year that I welcomed chaos and felt like a well-oiled machine as I moved from one task to the next in anticipation of the magical few days that lay ahead. Since 1986, because I was the only one in the family with a child, an 8 month-old baby specifically, Mom said I needed to have Christmas at my house to make my life easier. I gladly accepted, relieved that I wouldn’t have to haul baby Thomas and the large pile of equipment that would accompany him. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Mom was handing over the role of hostess to me, a role I would hold for the next 32 years. Had I known what the passing of the gavel would mean to me over the next three decades, I would have been more gracious in my acceptance. Then again, maybe she didn’t realize it at the time that she was forever surrendering her role of hostess, although secretly, I think she was happy to pass it on and finally become the guest that got to relax, hold the baby and compliment the hostess.
I embraced the role — the schedule, the food (thank goodness for sister help on that one…), the decorating and the multiple trips to the store, the airport, the liquor store and the shopping mall, usually with babies, toddlers or children in tow. It exhausted me and energized me at the same time and I wouldn’t have changed or delegated one task or responsibility.
Our family did our big celebration and all of the present unwrapping on Christmas Eve. We changed this from Christmas Day when my kids brought home girlfriends and boyfriends that eventually became a part of our family and had other family traditions to take part in. With my kids no longer anticipating what Santa would bring them, it didn’t really matter if we opened our gifts on Christmas morning or Christmas Eve. Traditions are added, usually very organically without even knowing it and they are also let go of because they are outgrown. Arranging hand decorated cookies and carrots for the reindeer on a special plate for Santa that was only used on Christmas Eve was a part of our Christmas Eve ritual, then one year it didn’t happen. It just stopped and no one mentioned the tradition that became a bookend to starting the bedtime routine in anticipation of Santa’s arrival.
As the kids left home for college, the date for our family Thanksgiving also changed from the 3rd Thursday of the month to the 3rd Saturday. This was also a tradition that evolved after my kids began to have obligations at their boyfriend or girlfriend’s homes for the holiday. I decided that eating two meals on the actual day of Thanksgiving was a terrible idea and not fair for the hostess that got round two. My son Grant began referring to it as “Fakesgiving,” fake in the date, but traditional in every other aspect. Thanksgiving, or Fakesgiving, was also a holiday that both my Mom and my Mother-in-law graciously handed the hostessing duties to me not long after I inherited Christmas. I happily accepted and also realized that although I don’t consider myself to be a control freak, it appears that on Thanksgiving, I am. I like a specific way of preparing the turkey and its sides and prefer waiting until dark before sitting down to the meal. Tables simply look better under the glow of candles.
These are the times I look on with deep fondness and nostalgia. They are also the times that were sacrificed when I moved to Boulder and was no longer was the place where everyone gathered — the headquarters. Not everyone came back for Thanksgiving but they did for Christmas and until 2020, when none of us traveled and a lot of Christmas took place over FaceTime, my children and their partners, my siblings and my parents had all been together for the holiday and up until 2018, it was at my house. I knew I wouldn’t always be the hostess and my house the headquarters but couldn’t possibly anticipate what that would feel like until 2018, when we celebrated our first Christmas at Mom and Dad’s retirement center in one of the rooms they offer for gatherings. I was still living in Kansas City, but my sister, in anticipation of my move and my loss of the role of hostess, thought it would be a good idea to ease into our new reality gradually, suggesting that we celebrate at Mom and Dad’s place the Christmas before my move. It would be one less obstacle to maneuver in what would be a trying year of firsts after my move. She was right and although at the time I didn’t think so, a year later, when I was living in Boulder, I was grateful for one less new tradition to experience when everything at that point was new to me. We brought the food, the wine and the laughter and had a great time as we were all together and that’s all that mattered, or so I kept telling myself, but it was hard. It was hard not having it be in my house with candles lit, greenery hung and lights twinkling. It was easier and far more practical given that Mom and Dad lived 40 minutes away and no longer drove at night, which meant someone would have to put down the wine glass early on in the evening to be available to take them home. I knew that in my head, but in my heart I missed sitting in my living room with chairs pulled out of the dining room and squeezed into any place there was room. I can take myself back to a specific moment, right down to the smell of our traditional Christmas Eve meal of lasagne still lingering in the air, and random notes of Celine Dion periodically audible over the sounds of conversation taking place, punctuated with laughter. I’m sitting on the couch with a sister on one side of me and one of my kids on the other, taking turns leaning into them and absorbing the moment. The love in the air so thick that nothing else really mattered. It was my favorite night of the year.
The chaos of Christmas. The noise. The laughter. The traditions. The taking turns reading the poem on the gift that the giver would attach — a tradition that started with my Grandpa and has been happily carried on throughout the generations. It started with my Grandpa as a few lines that would give a hint as to what the gift was but has evolved throughout the years. When my kids first started writing poems, they were in grade school and by the time they were in high school and college, some of the poems were several stanzas long and the delivery often topped the contents of what was under the wrapping paper. That, along with the “pie gifts” are traditions that have held strong for four generations in my family. The pie gift originated with my Grandma (wife of the one who started the poem tradition) who would select small gifts for everyone at the Christmas dining table and wrap them in white tissue with a long ribbon that reached each individual plate. We’d all pull our ribbons to collect the gift and would unwrap them before the meal began. That tradition evolved into drawing names for the gifts so the hostess (me) wouldn’t have to buy over a dozen small gifts. Over the years, poems were added to the pie gifts, something that new members to the family either embraced or dreaded. I remember watching my father-in-law, usually a very soft spoken man and more of an observer than a participant, beam with pride when his two page, very eloquently written poem, was being read. I think it became his favorite part of our Christmas celebration. We still do the gift exchange although it has evolved into a Yankee swap stealing game, and a few have given up on the poem writing.
Christmas has changed because life has changed. We have been blessed in my family of birth to still have our original six, so the grief in feeling the loss I’m experiencing in the natural evolution of change, pales compared to the loss that most of my peers have experienced at this phase of life.
Just as my mom did over almost 40 years ago, I have begun the process of handing over my role as hostess, although not completely. Last night I hosted my Boulder family for dinner and our Christmas celebration. It was wonderful, and thoughtful and shimmering in the glow of candlelight and Christmas lights. There wasn’t the amount of chaos we had had the previous two years because my son and his wife and their two young daughters now live in Portland. Their absence and was felt, especially knowing they won’t be back to Kansas City this Christmas. Thankfully, my other son, and his wife, who I haven’t seen since August, will be. I’m learning, still, at age 68, to be grateful for what is present and not what’s missing, but I’m human and a mom and it’s the season of Christmas, which makes all the emotions feel like they’re written in bold font.
In the midst of watching my 6 year-old grandson and 4 year-old granddaughter open their gifts, I was able to pause and absorb the moment while feeling the familiar thread that began over 35 years ago — the strong thread of love, whether it’s sixteen or more people seated at two dining tables and gathering in the living room afterwards, the first to the room getting dibs on the comfortable furniture, or five people at the table with a seat for everyone in the living room. It’s the same pull of love that was still present in the room last night long after the gifts had been opened and the hugs and goodbyes exchanged. Celine Dion was still providing background music because oh I do love you at Christmas, Celine, and the wax was still soft from the candles that my granddaughter, Muna, was chomping at the bit to blow out most of the night because blowing out candles to her means making a wish. I’m guessing she is still wishing for a unicorn to ride to school. Keep blowing out those candles, Muna and I’ll keep lighting them for you.
Change is hard, no matter how it’s presented, even wrapped up in Christmas paper with a poem attached. Last night I decided to set the mourning aside for what had been and what I missed and the beautiful chaos that permeated my life every day for at least 2 weeks a year, and embrace what was, because at that very moment, it was all that mattered. As I reached down to get a ribbon from under the coffee table that had been missed in the clean up, I couldn’t help but notice the sparkle of my new sequin-covered slipper socks that Muna gave me for Christmas. My feet are either barefoot or in well-loved shearling scuffs, so the iridescent sparkles on my feet looked unfamiliar and very fancy! Change. Embrace it. Adapt it. Keep walking around in it until it feels natural and comfortable. Wear the sequins instead of well worn slippers because I think my granddaughter wants me to be fancier. Next week some of my family will celebrate Christmas with Mom and Dad at the retirement home where they live. We won’t have lasagne, or people gathered in two different rooms at two different tables, both decorated in holiday plaids accented with votive candles and greenery and Celine won’t be singing in the background. What will be present will be the very familiar thread of love, still be encircling us we do our gift exchange, some with poems and others with excuses. It’s not the same, but neither are we. We’ve aged, we’ve moved, we’ve become parents, we’ve become grandparents and great grandparents and some of us have even gotten fancy and now wear sequined slippers and that’s what I’m choosing to embrace this Christmas. Change, but with the same energy that is still the first thing that is felt in the room….love.
Wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas filled with love, new memories and maybe something fancy.
My new sparkly side.
Two of my many gifts this Christmas.