Religion doesn't play a major role in our family but we observe Christmas as a period of good will and family celebration. It's a scheduled opportunity to take stock, give thanks and celebrate the privilege of being alive. Whatever your beliefs, I think there is a magic that surrounds the season and I swear I've seen lights in the sky on Christmas Eve that could only belong to a sleigh.
Luckily, my children have inherited the Christmas passion that I inherited from my mother. Regular readers of my blog know that I lost my Mum many years ago but Christmas is one of those times that makes me feel close to her. In fact, Mum died on Christmas Eve and lots of people question how I can still enjoy the holiday so much when it's the anniversary of her death. It's easy really. Mum was such a great fan of Christmas that I see it as a celebration of her life, not her death. After being given a final, terminal diagnosis in November she decided Christmas Eve was the time to go because she'd read some cockamamie story somewhere that the leprechauns had struck a deal that anyone who died between midnight and dawn on Christmas Eve got a free pass to heaven. I guess morphine can do strange things to people but Mum was never one to let facts stand in the way of a good story and she liked to hedge her bets on the whole heaven & hell thing, so Christmas Eve it was.
Given the doctor's prognosis of 2 weeks after an appointment in November, I wasn't so confident that she'd make Christmas Eve so we held Christmas early that year, on December 1st. Mum's rule about the tree going up was strictly Dec 15th ( I can't remember why) so we had to fudge the truth a bit. We had a great celebration with some close friends, we opened all the presents and sat round her bed (in the lounge room) telling stories & listening to Jaime sing several renditions of Rudolph. The next day Mum slipped into a coma and didn't really regain consciousness until Christmas Eve. On that day, she suddenly sat upright in bed and demanded that I open and drink the bottle of Moet that the district nurse had left her. We had what would be our last conversation while we listened to the Myer Christmas Carols. She put down the glass, went to sleep and never woke up again.
Anyway, I digress. Ever since Mum died, Dec 1 has marked beginning of the Christmas season for me and I'm glad and grateful that my family support my need to maintain the tradition and ritual that keeps me anchored to my childhood. Not only do my children respect my OCD order of things, so does my husband. If there's one piece of advice I would give to any girl, it's find a man who loves Christmas. If you've found yourself with a Humbug (or one who tells you Valentine's Day is a commercial joke), get rid of him.
It took me a long time to give up the 'real' tree. Christmas tree hunting was one of the more hilarious but also stressful features of my obsession. The tree had to be 'just right'. Not too short, not too tall and definitely not too skinny! When we moved into our new house though, the thought of all those dead pine needles was too much for me so we bought a spectacular fake fir. It's just the right size and it stays green for the entire month that it's allowed to reside in the lounge room but it has to be put up PROPERLY! The lights go on first and then the ornaments, in order.
First, Grandma's ornament. Clearly I was in the midst of grief when I bought it because it's a naff pink rosy thing that Mum would have hated. Nevertheless, I pack it in tissue paper every year & then tuck it into the tree somewhere where the lights will reflect on it.
Next, special ornaments that the kids have collected over the years. This year, lots of special ornaments that made their way home with us from our big trip last year. Elvis dressed in Christmas colors from Memphis, Santa holding the Statue of Liberty, turtles with our names on them from Key West and a Boston Celtics baseball ornament from the Quincy market. Shells in a glass ball from Santa Monica, Minnie Mouse from Disneyland, the official 2012 edition ornament from the White House and a Navajo indian ornament from the Grand Canyon. More hedging my religious bets with a beautiful wooden cross from the church in Sedona, a handmade owl from a shop in Natchez that was so deep in the South that the shop assistant referred to her boss as 'Miss Emily'. And my personal favourite, one that reminds me that Christmas crosses racial boundaries, a black Santa riding in a sleigh pulled by alligators from the Everglades.
It was odd being away from home last year. Amazing, but odd. I don't want to sound at all ungrateful about spending Christmas Eve watching the snow fall in New York because it was amazing but I am glad to be home with my own traditions this year.
Last but not least, on top of the tree goes a pretty ordinary looking paper angel that Sophie colored in at school the year that Geoff first joined our family. It was a symbol of our new family unit and so it maintains its superior position over all the glitz and glamour below it. By the time all that goes on, I have drunk at least one glass of champagne & we've played some sort of irreverent Christmas Carol from the Simpson's Christmas CD.
Then the present buying begins. I am totally unashamed of the over indulgence that is the pile of presents under our tree. We're not usually extravagant people but Christmas is different. We love buying each other stuff and there are no rules, except that everyone gets about the same amount of parcels because it makes the unwrapping process more fun. It doesn't matter how old you are, Santa brings everyone a sack full of things to wear, things to eat, things to read and rubbish to play with. Online shopping has played right into my compulsive Christmas shopping addiction because its so easy to order bits and pieces in the lead up. By the time the parcels arrive I've often forgotten what I bought and so it's like a double Christmas surprise - for me and the recipient. Then of course there's the sorting and wrapping and more buying because inevitably I've got sidetracked with things that one of the kids will really like and left someone else's pile a bit short. Then, (every year) about a week before Christmas I suffer from over indulgence phobia and take a few things out and tuck them away for birthdays, only to change my mind on Christmas Eve and put them back in again!
Giving to strangers is a relatively new tradition in our family but it's a growing one. Last year in New York Taine elected to spend his Christmas money in $1 bills, giving them away to homeless people in the Subway. The genuine gratitude from people for the price of a coffee was a humbling one for all of us. This year we've concentrated on online donations, the Wishing Tree and a couple of Secret Santa drops. There's a lot of joy in anonymity.
Jaime and Xavier and Sophie arrive in time for a late dinner on Christmas Eve and we take our annual photo in front of the tree. This takes some work because from one year to the next we forget how to use the self timer. Everyone yells at Sophie because she insists on putting lipstick on first, then Sophie yells at everyone else because we aren't sitting in THE RIGHT ORDER. Then Taine ruins Christmas by jumping up before the timer goes!
The Santa sacks go on the chairs in the lounge room. NO ONE is allowed to open ANY presents before 7am when I am sitting in my chair with a cup of coffee beside me. We'll eat bacon and scrambled eggs and croissants for breakfast, served in my grandmother's Royal Doulton warming bowls that only come out on Christmas Day. The girls will go out to the farm for lunch and Geoff and Taine and I will have a ham sandwich picnic. Tomorrow night we'll share with our co grandparents- to- be and Xavier's extended family. We'll take along one of our Christmas traditions ( the super enhanced bon bons) to join our traditions with theirs.
This year of course, given that the eldest child is heavy with child(ren), Christmas is especially significant. Christmas is a celebration and promise of new life and ours is about to be doubly blessed. I can't believe my baby is about to have babies of her own and I can't wait. With the new additions, our lives will cross into a new phase but Christmas will always be Christmas and a way to connect past generations with the future.
Like thousands of other Victorians, we've watched the Myer Music Bowl carols tonight , we've left some carrots on the deck for the reindeer and some shortbread and some water for Santa (with a side serve of red wine for the elves) on the kitchen bench. We've done a quick Secret Santa run and now the house is quiet and brimming with anticipation. The sky is full of stars and I swear if you look closely enough you'll spot the lights of Santa's sleigh. I'm off to enjoy the sort of sleep that only ever happens when all of my precious children are tucked into beds in my house.
Happy Christmas to all of You and Yours from Me and Mine :-)