Christmas Past, Christmas Present
I savored the trinity of holidays when I was a kid. Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. This triple threat commenced with the relatively unimportant Halloween, then moved to the more significant Thanksgiving, and culminated in the ultimate holiday, Christmas.
I have both good and bad Christmas memories. Still, my overall reminiscence of the season was one of excitement and joy. I enjoyed school, but the idea of getting two weeks off from it at the height of winter was exhilarating. However, it seemed that the week that preceded winter break expanded to infinity, moving ever slower as each day inched towards the holiday weekend.
The first few days off of school were magical, and all possibilities appeared to be within my grasp. I could stay up, I could sleep in, I didn’t have homework to weigh me down, and school seemed like a lightyear away.
Christmas Eve celebration took place at my grandparent’s walk-up flat on Chicago’s West Side. I didn’t like going there as it smelled strongly of garlic and BenGay. Worse, everyone spoke in Slovak, a language that I could neither speak nor understand. However, Christmas Eve was different, as all of my cousins were in attendance. The family was packed into the tiny place as we laughed and celebrated. My grandmother was an excellent ethnic cook, and we dined on her Christmas cabbage soup, which was accompanied by homemade rye bread, kolacky, and yeast coffee cakes filled with sweet poppy seed or fruit fillings. The kids would be relegated to a makeshift table in one of the bedrooms that was adorned with mismatched plates and bowls. Before we started our meal, a thin host like wafer would be passed among us. Each of us would break off a piece, which we dripped in honey and ate. I’m unsure of the significance of this wafer, which was called Oplatki. I thought it had something to do with Holy Communion, but that is just my conjecture.
Sometime after 11 PM, we would put on our coats and go to Assumption BVM Catholic Church for Midnight Mass. This was an ethnic church, and so the service was in Slovak. The place would be filled with parishioners, and once again, my nose would be assaulted by the smell of garlic, this time punctuated by the pungent odor of mothballs used to prevent insect destruction of the congregations’ wool dress coats. It was not uncommon for one of my siblings to start to laugh, and like a wave, their mirth would spread to the rest of us. Each child desperately trying to stifle their sacrilegious giggles. Of course, that was impossible, and the more we tried, the more we laughed. Although we were met with angry glares, I remember those incidents with full satisfaction.
After services, we returned to my grandparents’ house for another meal. Our Christmas Eve dinner was meat-free, but our 1 AM meal was not. I don’t recall everything that we ate during that meal. Still, perogies and a delicious Slovak sausage called Droby stand out in my memory. My grandmother would bake the latter with bacon until both the bacon and sausage casings were crisp and delicious. Stuffed to our limit, we would then pile into our respective cars and return home. Christmas Eve was a day where a young kid could stay up ridiculously late without being scolded by a parent.
Thanksgiving and Christmas Day were the only times that we ate in our dining room, and they were also the only days that we used our good china. Our china consisted of thin white porcelain dishes that had a silver ring around their edges, and an outer margin decorated with pink roses. I thought it was very fancy. Typically, we would eat our meals at our old Formica kitchen table using worn melamine dishes, so eating in the dining room was very special.
My mother would make a massive feast for Christmas Day. We would start off with a small glass of tomato juice and some canned fruit salad and then move onto the main course, a full Thanksgiving-style meal plus dumplings, pork roast, and Polish sausage with sauerkraut. There would be more kolache and yeast coffee cakes. Also, there could be a pie, cookies, nut cups, date bars, and other delectables.
My two maiden aunts always celebrated Christmas dinner with us. So we weren’t allowed to open presents until dinner was over. This could be agony for me as all of my friends opened gifts either on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning.
Despite having a pile of presents under the tree, the actual number of gifts per person was small and mostly unremarkable. Usually, the best gifts went to my parents’ Godchildren as my folks didn’t want to seem cheap to the other relatives. I often bought my gifts from the Spencer Catalog, a mail-order house where you could get fabulous items for $1 to 3 dollars. Most of the gifts that I received were functional and not very inspired. However, there were a few standout years that I remember.
I started to listen to the radio when I was in early grade school. I would tune our old Aiwa kitchen radio carefully to pick up far off cities as their amplitude modulated signals ebbed and flowed with the shifting ionosphere. Discovering these hidden signals was seminal in broadening my overall view of the world around me, and I wanted a radio for my very own. Christmas was approaching, and I remember telling my mother of this fervent wish.
That year, my mother decided to wrap presents early, and to prevent package prodding, she used a “secret code” to identify whose gifts were whose. This didn’t stop me from investigating the wrapped packages, and I found one rectangular box that was just the right size and weight for a little tabletop radio. I could hardly wait for Christmas.
Christmas arrived that I was given my present to open, it was THE box! I started to carefully rip the wrapping paper, which revealed the word “Westinghouse.” Holy cow, I was really going to get a radio! I now tore off the rest of the paper and literally started to shriek, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I really wanted this, thank you!” My mother had a puzzled look on her face, and took the box from me. “This is for your brother.” She had read the wrong code, and I got the wrong gift. True story. Later, as a teenager and adult, I collected radios of all sorts, eventually owning dozens of them… I’m sure this is only a coincidence.
When I was in 6th grade, my oldest sister Carol married. That Christmas, she gave me a little wrapped box for my gift. It was so light that I thought it was empty. I opened the box to find a note, that note led me to another note, which led me to another note. Eventually, I found myself outside of the house, marching down the street to my sister and her husband’s car. The trunk of the sedan was partially open, and sticking out of it was a huge rectangular box. The box had a little piece of a scrap of paper taped to it that said, “For Michael.” I was utterly bewildered. I started to rip a corner off the box only to find metal parts inside. I tore the box further, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. Carol and Bob had bought me a bicycle. My current bike from my parents was a cast-off from one of my cousins. It was so old and worn that I couldn’t even turn the crank arm, and so it sat in the garage unused. Now, I had a brand new, bright red bike! It also had a battery-operated headlight and a package rack on its back fender. I had never received such a generous gift, and I was utterly overwhelmed. My eyes filled with tears as I tried to pull it out the trunk of the car, but my young body didn’t have enough strength. I looked up to find Bob and Carol standing next to me, and with one pull, Bob lifted the box and carried it inside of the house. I rode that bike for many years and even wore out multiple sets of tires on my travels. That Christmas was the best Christmas ever.
My early Christmases all followed the same prescribed formula. All of my family would gather, and the same rituals were followed every year. There was stability and predictability during the holiday during those times. The routine felt good.
On Christmas Eve, we attended the 5 PM service at Community Christian Church and then immediately headed to our final Christmas party at my nephew Tommy’s house. Since I get up at 4 AM to walk, I was ready to leave the party once the clock chimed nine.
Julie and I both agreed that we would have a low key Christmas Day this year. After attending a variety of pre-Christmas get-togethers, our introverted selves needed some time to recharge. Our two remaining kids were in agreement with scaled-down Christmas plans, and we all relished the idea of staying in our PJs as long as we wanted to on Christmas Day. For many years our family has been somewhat fractured on Christmas, as my oldest daughter was typically unable to travel and celebrate with us. However, this year things would be even worse. My second oldest was now in the Peace Corps and serving in Africa. Not only would we not see her, but we weren’t even sure if we would hear from her due to connectivity uncertainties.
On Christmas Day, I kept my early walk tradition, but the rest of the family took their time to rise from bed. Julie was the first one up. She poked her head into my study to wish me a “Merry Christmas” and then headed into the kitchen. Soon I heard the whir of our coffee grinder and then the electronic beeps of the oven as Julie programmed it for 350F. She had assembled an overnight egg dish the day before, and she was getting ready to bake it for our Christmas brunch.
She brought me a cup of coffee, and we chatted for a moment before she returned to the kitchen. Slowly Grace and Will emerged from their respective bedrooms. It was time to open presents. We had texted Kathryn, our Peace Corps daughter, and she said she would try to call us on Christmas morning. That is if she could set a good enough internet connection. As we started to open our gifts, Julie’s iPhone rang. It was Kathryn calling on WhatsApp. She had a good enough wifi connection for a video call! She was able to stay online until we completed our openings as we chatted with her and showed her our presents. It almost seemed like she was with us.
That evening we changed things up by going to our first ever Christmas Day movie. We all enjoyed, “Knives Out,” a who-done-it mystery. Then after a day of rest, we traveled to see our oldest child, Anne. She had an appointment in Normal, IL, and we decided to meet her and our grandkids at a restaurant there. We ate, talked, and laughed as we opened presents and took pictures. Another non-traditional meeting for us, but it was great none-the-less.
I write this on New Year’s Eve. Our non-traditional Christmas celebrations are behind us, as we face not only a new year, but also a new decade.
I did enjoy the routine and traditions of Christmas past. However, it was not possible for my family and me to have a classic Christmas in 2019. What were my options? I could have demanded that all of my kids be present, but that would have been ridiculous. I could have sulked and felt sorry for myself, but that would only make the situation worse. I choose option three, to not only accept the change but to make the most out of it. By being flexible, I was able to have contact with all of my kids during the holiday. I had an enjoyable Christmas Day punctuated by a first, a Christmas Day movie. It was all excellent.
It is easy to get locked into a rigid holiday tradition, which can serve as a point of disappointment or conflict if the exact requirements of that expectations are not met. However, such stiffness serves no purpose. I choose to be grateful for what I have instead of being resentful for what I don’t.
Here is the audio link to this podcast: http://psychiatricsecrets.libsyn.com/christmas-past-christmas-present?fbclid=IwAR2PR7F3Jxb_oXIP0bJm7GbaV_tbWLIGcZiXGC2F5K-Qts96CWUAMHisdhM