My extreme infatuation with the holidays started when I was a little kid, despite the fact that I can only remember one happy, functional Christmas, when I was 7.
As an adult, I vowed I'd be mistress of my own holiday comfort and joy. I'd create traditions that would last a lifetime, and later, when I had children, they'd carry on our family's traditions. I was a gift-buying, stocking-sewing, cookie-baking, toffee-making, egg-nog-whipping crazy woman. I cranked up the Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving and kept it up through New Year's. I do believe that cranked is the key word here.
But when I recall my true holiday glory years - my Christmas wonder years - I'd have to say it was when my kids were very young, before their dad and I divorced. Back then the kids were wide-eyed and believed in everything. Each Christmas Eve we'd leave a plate of cookies and carrots for Santa and his reindeer, which the kids totally expected would be gone by morning, evidence of St. Nick's arrival. In those magical early holiday years, the Polar Express bell was completely real, and the kids heard its ring - loud and clear.
But magic is fleeting. Eventually, the kids grew older and more wizened. They developed their own traditions that strayed wildly from my holiday ideals, like posing a "pervert elf" ornament under the angel's skirt, and insisting on hanging some of their most tattered preschool ornaments on the tree, which included a faded red-and-green paper chain, a tempura-paint covered Styrofoam ball impaled with a green pipe cleaner and a trio of photo-frame ornaments that captured the kids at some particularly awkward stages that showcased missing teeth and budding adolescence. A pair of cracked, stacking wooden Santas rounded out the eclectic decor. By then, the kids were way hip to the Santa tale, and the Polar Express was just nothing more than an old train that carried a gullible kid with a ripped pajama pocket.
I remarried the year my daughter went to college, but her two younger teen-age brothers were still at home. My new husband was Jewish, so we reached a compromise: No to live Christmas trees, yes to garland and outdoor lights, no to big wrapped packages, yes to stockings and a "kosher" dill pickle glass tree ornament, proof that my husband was being a good sport about Christmas. I toned down the manic cookie-making and learned to make challah.
Around that time I bought a bunch of black Santa figurines at Morrison's Discount Store, which I loaded in everyone's stockings. (In our family, there's an unsolved genealogical mystery about whether my mother's paternal grandmother was or was not black. Hence, the embrace of the black Santas, a nod to my great-grandmother, Mamie Lamb.)
The kids started a bad habit of leaving behind unwanted stocking stuffers, like boxed sets of thank-you notes and individual fruitcakes, which explains the year I was left with an abundance of discarded black Santas, which I gathered up and tucked in the following year's stockings. I also salvaged one fruitcake that I put in the freezer, which I put in my daughter's stocking the following year, which she returned to me the next year, and I returned to her the next year. The budding petrified fruitcake tradition ended after Sarah moved to another apartment and forgot to remove the fruitcake from her freezer. At least I like to think she forgot it.
By the time Josh had joined the Marine Corps, youngest son Joe and I had our year-round hide-and-seek thing going with the black Santas. I thought that two of Joe's most creative Santa hiding places were in my flour bin and ice maker. And I'm pretty sure he got a kick out of the ones I stashed in his carry-on luggage when he moved to the Czech Republic to marry Marie, the love of his life.
As a salve for my empty-nester holiday blues, each Christmas after that I included a black Santa in Joe's Christmas box to the Czech Republic. I have no idea how he explained our "American tradition" to Marie's family.
I will mercifully fast-forward through one of my most unpleasant Christmas of all, the first week in December three years ago: Colossal lifequake. Major losses - marriage, so-called friend, business partners, home - galore. That Christmas I was pretty much emotionally under water. I moved in with my Redding son and his new bride, whose vision of their first married Christmas together probably hadn't included me sharing a house with them. That was also the year my daughter and I celebrated Christmas Eve in my car after the restaurant in which we'd been eating closed for the night. Sarah gave me an inflatable fruitcake, which made us laugh like crazy. I may have laughed a little too crazy.
I am happy to report that Christmas 2012 was the first one in three years when I didn't feel a combination of sad and numb. It was the first year I felt alive enough to celebrate Christmas by putting up a full-sized live tree, so tall that my son joked it looked like it was growing through the ceiling. I also put up an artificial mini tree that paid homage to my kids' traditions.
The passing of time helped, but I also credit the fact that I pushed the holiday re-set button. I gave up the notion of doing things for tradition's sake, and did what I could handle, and what worked. I didn't bake one Christmas cookie. But I did make toffee and caramel corn and eggnog and challah. And I gave my sons each a kosher dill pickle ornament for their trees, a memory of a different kind of Christmas.
During my Noni Doni days, I let Austin snack on the gingerbread house he made, rather than try to convince a 2-year-old that edible houses weren't made for eating.
I also let him make gifts, like mugs upon which he drew with special pens. All the while, he insisted on wearing the cheap felt elf hat I found at the Dollar Tree. I never imagined he'd become so attached to it that he'd only remove it at bath time, and that he'd even sleep in it. What really made this rich was the hat was not exactly something his normally fashion-aware parents would have chosen. Even at his young age, Austin was already showing his parents that children are natural-born tradition-benders.
Christmas 2012 was the year I learned that traditions aren't set in stone. Rather, they're moving targets that allow us to choose where to direct our aim; whether to shoot for that "important" tradition, or ditch it completely. Besides, have you noticed how sometimes, the traditions that end up sticking aren't the ones we would have chosen in the first place? In some ways, it's as if the traditions choose us.
I discovered that the more I let go of things I thought I should do - the old traditions - the more room I had to open myself up to the possibilities of new adventures and experiences, whether it was Christmas-tree-cutting with my daughter-in-law's family, or participating in my twin's gingerbread-house-making, or attending our neighborhood Christmas caroling, or driving to San Francisco to spend Christmas with my youngest sister and daughter, or hosting small family holiday dinners on any day except December 24 or 25.
The only thing that rained on my holiday parade was when it came time to mail Joe and Marie's package, and I realized I'd run out of black Santas.
My Christmas miracle arrived a few days later, when I received a package from Joe and Marie. Inside the box was a small black Santa, staring at me from among wads of Czech newspaper. I cried when I saw him, of course, just as Joe knew I would.
I could be wrong, but I could have sworn the Santa was smiling, and swinging a little bell.
It rang loud and clear. No doubt the little guy was ringing in a new tradition.
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.