Monday, November 16, 2009

The Winter Holidays Loom

by Julia Buckley
The holidays create a yearly paradox for me: I anticipate their arrival with both happiness and dread.

There's no doubt that the holidays bring many good things, starting with Thanksgiving and the chance it offers to gather with family, to share a fine meal, to catch one's breath and relax after stepping off of the work-a-day treadmill.

Christmas, too, brings the beauty of tradition and the comfort of family, as well as many pleasing sights and sounds. If someone tried to make me stop celebrating Christmas, I would protest heartily for a variety of reasons.

However, the holidays are like any other time of year in respect to the rapidity of life these days. Is it my middle-aged perspective, or were holidays once celebrated at a slower pace, one that allowed for all of the preparations and festivities without the mandatory nervous breakdown?

Perhaps part of the pressure I feel is that my mother always created beautiful holidays. The house was perfect and she baked German breads, cakes and cookies for weeks beforehand so that they could all be put out on festive trays on Christmas Eve and given to guests and neighbors on Christmas Day. There was always time to go cut our own Christmas tree and eat cherry cobbler and drink hot chocolate at a little diner on the way home--one of our family traditions. There was time to decorate and to wrap presents for our whole seven-member family. There was time to attend Midnight Mass in our best attire. There was even time to sit and watch the snow fall.

Perhaps the biggest difference between then and now was that my mother did not work, and I do. Eight hours of my day is spent outside of the home (nine-and-a-half, if you count all of the dropping off and picking up), and yet I still want to create the same sort of Thanksgiving, the same sort of Christmas for my children that my parents created for me. This, I have found, is a mighty tall order.

When my children were young I would actually take the day off on St. Nicholas' Day (December 6th), so that I could wrap little presents and fill tiny boots with candy, and then watch my sons' faces when they stumbled downstairs in their footy pajamas and saw that St. Nick had been there. One year my husband and I actually stayed up late trying to create authentic St. Nick footprints on the floor (which should have been rather terrifying, but always ended up being wonderful instead).

These were some of my successes, but I often find that I have failed to live up to my own image of what the holidays should be, perhaps because my image of holidays past is rooted in illusion. Or perhaps things were just different then.

My sister and I often commiserate about our failure to create near-perfect holidays. We'll find ourselves on the phone after a long workday (she is a teacher, too), contemplating our messy houses with their big cat-hair tumbleweeds and the kid handprints on the glass, saying "Mom would have had the house sparkling; she would have done the floors and had us get to work polishing the silverware." Yes, polishing the silverware! My mother also ironed things--something I've rarely done in twenty-one years of married life.

In any case, the holidays are coming whether I'm ready or not. I'll have my yearly compromise of time off with family, but a bag of research papers hidden under a side table, casting a pall of obligation over my fun.

I think the key will be to do something differently this year: to start a new tradition that our family will look forward to for every winter holiday to come. Perhaps you'll share some with me so that I can embrace this holiday season, its joys and its obligations, as the best ever.


Maggie Bishop said...

Hello Liz, One way to make the holidays easier is to have everyone bring a dish to the dinner so you don't have to do it all. You could provide the main entree and let friends and family join in by fixing something. My brother provides the Thanksgiving turkey and I provide the Christmas one. It was good to meet you on your Carolina tour.

Julia Buckley said...

Hi, Maggie--
I'm not Liz, I'm Julia. But thanks for the advice. :)

Lonnie Cruse said...

I started having my daughters-in-law bring a dish or two several years ago and it works out much better. Makes it easy on all of us.

New traditions? How about pizza on New Year's Day instead of black-eyed peas and ham? Works for me.

Julia Buckley said...

Good thought, Lonnie! We need to spice up the New Year's celebration.

Marilynne said...

At 70, I'd like to let the next generation take over, but they're all scattered to the winds. If I go to visit them,they'll create it for me, but they won't come to my house with casseroles and such and take over.

So, here's how I stand for Thanksgiving: my husband and I, one daughter, two grandchildren and four friends. Maybe three other friends from church, maybe a nephew and niece.

I will be too tired to enjoy the feast unless I simplify. And I will. And I'll ask everyone who can to bring something.

The core of it all is not the sparkling house and traditions, the core is having family and friends for a meal. I look forward to it very much.

Sandra Parshall said...

Julia, that yearning for perfection is what makes everybody miserable on major holidays. Things probably were far from perfect when your mother was in charge; you're just remembering it all as perfect, and feeling like a failure because you don't measure up. Trust me, in 30 years your sons will look back on their childhood holidays and sigh over their perfection, lamenting that nothing will ever measure up to the joy their mom brought to those occasions. It's *you* they'll be remembering, you and your love for them, not how many kinds of bread you baked or how many fancy decorations you hung around the house. You have what many others don't have: a loving family around you. Enjoy it!

Julia Buckley said...

A great perspective, Marilynne!

Thank you.

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Sandra. That's a lovely way of putting it! You have all cheered me immensely. :)

kathy d. said...

Some of us had Chanukkah and Christmas, which was lucky for my sister and me but the holidays always varied in many ways.

The one constant which my sister and I both remember fondly is that my mother, who was a great pianist, would play all of the Christmas carols and Chanukkah songs in the Fireside Book of Folk Songs and we would all sing, gathered around the piano. My mother and later, my sister, harmonized.

I still remember all of the songs better than what I read in the news two days ago.

Julia Buckley said...

Great point, Kathy. We're a singing family, too, and my mother is always sad if we don't devote a big part of Christmas to song.