Christmas is all packed up here, less than 48 hours after the event. Part of this is because we are taking our annual winter journey to worship the sun and sea in Grand Cayman before New Years. But another truth is that I can't stand having the accoutrements around after the magic has happened--it's like being the person who comes to sweep the set of a beloved stage or screen show, to see that the furniture and props are just... things. When they are part of the magic, the buildup, the advent stockings hanging on my staircase are festive. When there are no more anticipate-the-holidays activities scribbled on slips of red cardstock and chocolates tucked inside them, they are just drugstore felt stockings stapled to ribbon cluttering up my house.
And as you know from my post on Christmas books, we pack these and their friends the holiday movies away with the ornaments and nativities. I am militant almost about safeguarding the 'magic'. To be honest, there is a part of me that is completely cringing about writing about Christmas on December 27. Shouldn't we be moving on, writing about resolutions or our new snowfall? part of me thinks. But I have been thinking about the ritual of Christmas a lot this year.
My sister and I were up texting after midnight on Christmas eve, our sewing machines humming along. Her two-year-old had sleepily said she hoped Santa would bring her a snowman, so Linden (who lives in the Caribbean) was up making a snowman for Quinn out of felt and buttons. On my end, I had sewn a modified "Ugly" doll for Hayden out of his old hockey pants--part stuffed animal, part hot-water-bottle holder for his night pains, and when I saw it set out by his stocking, I just knew Max was going to feel gypped, so I was whipping up a blue fleece bat/owl type creature. We were texting back and forth photos of our projects, and expressing the hope that the Christmas magic we grew up on had been created.
For us, a huge part of this magic was the heavy, unaltered and beloved ritual my parents created around Christmas.
The Christmas of my childhood has weeks of lead-up that I won't bore you with--everyone has things that bring the season to life for them. We did too; songs, Tableaux, and the traditional goose dinner with my grandparents on my mother's blue and gold wedding China, new Christmas flannels, and reading aloud from Clement Moore. But the real ritual began Christmas morning, in a near-sacred order that stretched every Dec 25th until mid-afternoon.
My four siblings and I woke each other up and waited in our bedrooms, peeking across the hallway at each other, until the appointed time. I made sure everyone had brushed and gargled--my hyper-sensitive sniffer wanted nobody's morning breath wafting my way on the next part: waking my parents with a serenade of "Merry Christmas Bells Are Ringing." A quick cuddle in their bed, and then on to stockings in the living room. My mom knit all of our stockings, beautiful, matching and personalized, but they were never where we hung them on the fireplace. They were tucked into a pile, a bounty of stuffed animals and presents and extras. These we opened as my Dad laid a fire in the fireplace, calling out grateful 'thank you Santas'.
I marvel about the next part of the ritual as a mother: breakfast. Somehow, my mother managed to clean up from a full goose dinner for at least ten people on Christmas eve, and on Christmas morning, the table would be re-set with that same classic China, grapefruits halved and sugared at each place setting, holly sprigs in the napkin rings, homemade sticky buns in the oven. My dad made coffee and scrambled eggs with cream, and there was stollen and bacon. My sister-in-law and I were shaking our heads over this as we cleared the table Christmas eve this year, my mom shuffling around, HELPING, with her walker as she learns to walk after her shattered femur last June. How did she do it, all those years? How did she prepare these incredible meals, and clean, and do the wrapping and the stockings, and make all that magic? A wonder woman, we decided, who was also willing to do what we are not: all-nighters.
After sit-down breakfast, we had worship--a reading aloud of the Christmas story, a few carols. If someone had learned a religious piano song (seven years of lessons, and the only piano song I can play from memory is Greensleeves) they played it.
Between stockings and a sit-down breakfast, by the time worship was over, it might be ten, or even eleven. At long last, the deliciousness of presents could begin! We had appointed places in the living room where we sat, year after year. The elves--my brothers--would distribute the presents from under the tree to each person's station, careful to avoid or sometimes employing the aid of the clickety-clacking LGB train.
Presents were opened in specific order, SLOWLY, one at a time, youngest to older, in repeating circles, until we were finished. With an original family of seven, this could go on until the afternoon, when the ritual ended with wrapping paper tossed in the fireplace, and my mom doling out our laundry baskets to carry our loot back to our rooms.
Magic. Memories. Ritual. One Christmas four years ago, when there were just the two boys and my in-laws were here for the holidays, we let Hayden and Max tear through stockings and presents in a hazy, frenzied, fifteen-minute blur. No appreciation, no thanking the giver, adults milling around making coffee and trying to get the boys to eat something other than chocolate Santas for breakfast. No candles lit, no reading of the Petersham's The Christ Child, no carols. Just hysterical, rampant gimmes.
I felt sick afterwards, stuffing torn wrapping paper into trash bags, the boys looking up at me like, "that was it?" It was barely eight-thirty. I took a walk that afternoon and vowed that I would bring the ritual, the magic to my children. I've been doing it ever since. As we set out the stockings on Christmas eve, I heard my oldest, my nine-year-old fellow Virgo reminding the other two how it would go: stockings, then breakfast, then worship, then presents, ONE AT A TIME.
I don't do China or a big sit-down breakfast--our wedding China is still in its original packaging in our basement. And we've added our own flair; letters from Santa and reindeer chow debris greet them first thing, and a departure note from "Cheese", our elf on the shelf. I light candles scented like pine and poinsetta. My Dad comes over and makes scrambled eggs with cream, Jon brews excellent strong coffee and we have gluten-free sweet potato waffles with Nutella. This year, for the first time, my kids were so much more excited about giving than getting, desperate for everyone to open the gifts they had made or selected. Slowly, (okay, semi-slowly), one at a time, in order of age, while the LGB clickety-clacked around the track.
I think now, that the magic is in the ritual, and in the sentiment, maybe, in the care of creating and preserving tradition. I hope your Christmas was merry. Now, pack it up and let's move on.