One Woman’s (Holiday) Story
Happy Solstice, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and Joyous Kwanzaa to you. Or, if you are of the ilk, Hello, it’s Thursday!
This time of year it is difficult to avoid a winter holiday of one flavor or another in our culture, whether religious, spiritual, cultural or familial. While it is undeniable that the long, dark and cold nights lend themselves to inner contemplation, whether or not this self-examination is part of a larger celebration for you is really none of my business. I don’t plan to change that. What I do plan to do, however, is make my “me time” a little bit of your business. Not because it’s special. In fact it is just the opposite.
It’s a common story, a recognizable plot with a well worn theme, as familiar as “wash, rinse, repeat.” And even though it’s hackneyed, it is evergreen, to put a seasonal point on it. It goes like this:
Girl finds tradition
Girl loses tradition
Girl gets tradition back
Sound about right? You may be more familiar with the romantic iterations, just as clichéd and equally unavoidable. One of my favorite movies, 1959’s Pillow Talk, with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, illustrates my point beautifully. Doris Day as me, Rock Hudson as Tradition (I like this casting!) and Tony Randall playing my much maligned yet dependable mother. There is no defined season for examining our romantic plotlines (Valentine’s day does not qualify, and spring’s long sunny days generally induce us to seek mating habits, not examine them). Looking out the window into the black winter night is only slightly more frightening than looking into your own inner workings. At least in the cinematic example provided, those inner workings are dressed up like Ms. Day.
The literal definition of tradition, stemming from the Latin tradere, is to hand over or give for safekeeping, so finding tradition initially isn’t usually a discovery as much as a realization, because we are born into it. I can’t imagine a 5-year-old having a light bulb moment and declaring to his family, “Mother, father, I have decided to honor our ancestors by lighting a candle a day, for, oh, say eight days.” Rather, at the age of reason (which in my experience raising children is around 12 years), customs in a child’s life begin to take on meaning, almost like a camera lens slowly being focused manually. Aha! Those purple candles? Advent! Stand-kneel-sit-kneel-stand-sit-kneel? Stations of the cross! That secret language? Latin! That confusing dinner? Seder! The very young might know there is always a holiday tree, but the older child realizes, “We cut the tree together after finding the right one, and drink hot chocolate afterward.” (Or in my family, “We find the box with all of the branches in it and put it together without any instructions.”) This finding of tradition is really the finding of one’s own place in traditions that have been all around you since birth. Aha, indeed. (This would be represented by Doris Day’s character Jan Morrow, seemingly contented in her life as a single, independent interior decorator. It’s what she knows, and that’s just fine.)
I was born into a Catholic family. We attended mass weekly, as an extended group of siblings, cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Filling the remaining pews were friends and families, faces familiar from the adjoining parochial school and the neighborhood. Going to Catholic school meant that the stories from the Old and New Testament were not once-a-week recountings—they were daily teaching tools. The gospel readings would start and we’d whisper to one another, “Oh, I know this one. It’s the washing His feet one.” Familiarity bred … familiarity. Until Christmas. Which bred familiar reverent awe.
Christmas held a mysterious lure, unique among annual events, regardless of the same retelling year after year. The darkness outside contrasted with the candles and incense inside; the long robes of the children’s choir replicated the fancy coats of the adults; the almost-life-sized nativity on the altar set the example for the plastic lighted version on front lawns around town. I can still feel the urge to be quiet.
In my home, things were slightly more quirky, but still dependable. The crèche on top of the television served as a holy reminder during any Rankin & Bass offerings featuring New York Snowmen, oddly schnozzola-ed reindeer, or orphaned baby Santas. Every Christmas Eve at midnight, the baby Jesus would appear in his manger bed; every Christmas Eve night another jollier visitor would leave gifts. (Yes, I admit that I believed Santa brought the baby Jesus down the chimney, a sort of stork-midwife delivering saviors to good Josephs and Marys.) And sometimes, Barbie and Ken would try to adopt the baby Jesus, although the CEO of the agency (Mom) would always reverse the proceedings post haste.
The music of the holidays was equally and endearingly diverse, whether blasting from the record player, or rising in visible clouds of warm breath on cold nights as we went caroling door-to-door. Our repertoire included the secular and sacred, which we sang with equal gusto and equal harmony treatments. “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” segued effortlessly into “Up On the Rooftop.” Grateful households paid us with cookies, and Bing Crosby never knew his missed opportunity. We would have made a great team.
The Christmas tree, so adored by so many, was always an interesting focal point in my house. Like most families we had ornaments handed down, handmade, and haplessly wrapped in ancient re-used tissue paper. Trees varied in size and type over the years, but for half a dozen seasons we had the most infamous tree in the neighborhood, and it is this image that defines Christmas for me. My father had acquired a tree from a local department store. This was no ordinary tree—it was a display tree used to decorate the massive retailer’s central aisle. It was over 10 feet tall …and orange. With orange globe lights. It was the most amazing tree ever, and I would give anything to have it back, but at the time I recall bemoaning our glowing beacon to the world that cried out, “We’re weird!”
Decorating the tree was an all-day affair, with mom unwrapping each ornament and telling its story. “Oh, Kim, here’s the first ornament you ever made. It’s a football made of bread dough. You loved football.”
Rounding out my favorite traditions are the flavors of See’s Candies, Nana’s cookies, cheese balls and fresh green onions, eaten like celery; the feeling of thick tights that would never stay up and a hairdo pulled back so tight and fancy that I looked like a recipient of Face Lift for Kids; the smell of freshly blown-out candles and pine; the feel of velvet skirts and of the melted popcorn plastic Rudolph; the delight of staying in pajamas all of Christmas Day, and eating chocolate coins for breakfast.
After finding one’s place in an established tradition, it becomes a right of passage to question what is firmly in place. I believe this is called “teenage.” It is a biological function that is vital in so many areas of our lives. How else would we leave the nest? Why learn to fly if we never attempt to soar? We start with baby steps, questioning our curfews and household responsibilities. We take bigger steps, debating musical choices and political leanings. We jump off the roof —redefining our spirituality. Now as a parent, I believe each of these steps is as painful as the next, for everyone involved, and is actually part of the evolution of character—for everyone involved. We reject the old, because we, at seventeen or eighteen or twenty, are smarter than everyone who has come before us. (If you’re taking notes, this would be where Doris Day’s Jan Morrow discovers that Rock Hudson’s Brad Allen is the cad she’s been feuding with over a party line—telephone, not politico. Previous truths are questioned!)
Around my 18th year, I was fully immersed in all of the above steps of redefinition. I refused to hand-wash a pan, abandoned ABBA for Jello Biafra, and turned my backon Catholicism, Inc. I broke many hearts, most regrettably my mom’s (and maybe my sister’s, as she inherited my chores). My dad happily took over my ABBA collection, so emerged unscathed and humming. He would suffer more in the garage department of my young adult life. (May I interject here that this is the chapter where Tony Randall’s dejected Jonathans character most exemplifies my long-suffering, disappointed and yet truly loyal character—my mother.)
I stopped going to church altogether, citing hierarchical disparities and using the phrase “distribution of wealth” whenever possible, whether it fit the topic or not. Religion, politics, socio-economics, dinner (“Hey, distribute some of that gravy wealth, will ya?!”) I delved into paganism, as self-defined, not as presented to me by nuns and priests in the classroom, who might have been responsible for my shock as I discovered that pagans wore clothes and shoes, had jobs and children, and their own set of traditions. I also discovered a multitude of people around my age who had abandoned a multitude of their familial spiritual paths, all testing their wings alongside me, with varying levels of success.
Christmas and the winter holiday season in general became, for me, the Protest Season, defined for my cohorts more by what we despised in others (and maybe ourselves) than what we celebrated in ourselves (or others). “The Mall” was a term of derision for us, much like “Life of Sin” held for others. I was above tradition. I wore black to family Christmas parties and, when asked what I would like for gifts, simply answered, “Anything black.” I worked my way up from sitting out Holy Communion to skipping Midnight Mass altogether.
Most painfully, I gave up caroling, which was difficult because a Christmas party in my family is much like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, more singing than speaking, and with our own brand of ubiquitous silliness, pageantry and comical choreography. But adopting my newfound identity as militant cynic and heretic preempted any desire to participate in my childhood barbershop quartet.
I was quick to point out all of the calendrical coincidences between newfangled Christian holidays and ancient, earth-lunar inspired events. “Do you mean Son or Sun?” I would ask. Being kissed under mistletoe, I’d launch into the mythology of fertility, anxious to point out the “semen berries,” usually forgetting to kiss back. The adults in my life either rolled their eyes or took me on in debate, depending on their mood or their level of exasperation. Looking back I applaud their patience and their ability to keep coming up with black pajamas, black dinner plates, black jewelry and even black kitchen towels. What a pain in the ass I was.
GETTING TRADITION BACK
I won’t pretend it came by surprise. I won’t try to put an academic or philosophical spin on its return. I’ll simply state what so many of my friends have also found to be true: I rediscovered tradition when I had kids. I will admit to fighting the urge at first, to attributing my seasonal emotions to hormones or syrupy nostalgia. But over the span of half a dozen years I realized that what I was looking for was not a return to a specific spiritual path and its traditions, but to tradition itself, as defined above—something handed over, for safe-keeping. For me that wouldn’t be full immersion in the Catholic story that I still know backward and forward. It would not be absolute dedication to the turning of the Wiccan wheel. What I wanted to keep safe was the feeling of warmth, familiarity and dependability. There was a sense of security that I had missed during my twenties, while I was wandering and searching, and I wanted that back for my new family. The smell and sound of the decorations in their prehistoric boxes, and the recurring promise that those boxes held joy, wrapped in feathery tissue and memories. The noise and fun and comfort of a house full of family—immediate and extended—at least once a year. To rewrite an old saying—I filtered the bathwater and dried off the baby. I decorated trees, baked cookies, played holiday music, shopped, wrapped and made the house twinkle. (So, the Jan Morrow character is tricked into redecorating the bachelor pad of Brad Allen, only to find out he means it to be their marriage nest. Twinkle. Rediscovery!)
I kept the traditions I loved, let go of those I didn’t, gave away my anti-establishment soap box, and re-formed something new to hand down for safekeeping. There are many people who find fault in this “à la carte” method of celebrating Christmas, Yule, Solstice, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa. There are some who find fault in celebrating any spirituality at all. I respect their right to disrespect my choices. It doesn’t make Mel Torme’s chestnuts roast any less, or dim the glow of my (not orange) Christmas tree, or diminish the joy on Christmas morning if and when Santa has visited (with or without a baby Jesus). It doesn’t affect my recognition of the effects of solstice on my self-examination. It doesn’t stop me from wishing people, in all earnestness, a happy holiday season, or a Merry Christmas, or Good Yule. I’m not often patient and accepting. I admit this. However, I don’t really care what holiday greeting someone throws at me, no matter what religion or path it represents. In my humble opinion, it’s a gift that says, “I’m thinking about you in my way.” And really, I like it when people think about me.
KEEPING TRADITION IN A NON-TRADITIONAL TOWN
Santa Cruz has its own traditions, from our surfing Santa to Christmas tree bonfires. We’re generally proud to state that we are non-traditional. In fact, this defining characteristic is an oft-quoted reason that people move here, stay here, love here. This can pose an awkward, apologetic response to our individual search for tradition. I recently learned that even the desperation and panic we feel while holiday shopping is an ancient, ancestral response to preparing for winter. I believe the disproportionate outpouring of care for our fellow man during the holidays is a remnant of the symbiotic days of yore when it was of vital importance to ensure that your neighbors survived the winter. Maybe singing was simply a way to be found in the dark. I can’t explain the love songs in the television specials. But I do wish you all the happiest of happy, merriest of merry, and Thursday-est of Thursdays.
(And as a footnote, doesn’t it make perfect non-traditional sense for Hollywood’s most handsome gay heartthrob to continually chase that blonde ice princess, with the help of his sad sack best chum, Tony Randall, who fathered children well into his seventies?)
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