Post-early childhood, I was never that big on Christmas. My mother was kind of a fanatic about the holiday — shopping intensely starting December 26; sending out reams of carefully chosen and personalized cards; baking tons of cookies; decorating the house to the point where the walls were nearly invisible; and entertaining nonstop throughout the season.
This might sound like a lot of fun, but it wasn’t. She had an idealized picture in her head of what the holidays ought to be, perhaps culled from her own childhood, and nothing we did ever lived up to it. We never decorated the tree to her exact specifications. My father’s silly side comments as we caroled around the piano (“Hark thee, Harold? Who’s Harold?”) “spoiled” the occasion. She was always gracious about the presents we gave her, but it was clear that we’d missed the mark somehow. My father would serve heavily spiked eggnog to all comers, growing increasingly sloshed, upsetting her more. And when my brother and I fought, as we inevitably would with all that tension and sugar, she would snap. She’d yell that we had "ruined Christmas," and nothing we could do would set things right.
I wanted no part of it. I married a self-described Jewish atheist, became a Quaker, and basically ignored the holiday season, except for Christmas day, when we would visit my parents for as short a period as decently possible.
But after Ben was born, my feelings shifted. I wanted to provide him with warm memories and traditions. My mother was getting older, finding it increasingly difficult to keep up the strenuous holiday routine. So we started hosting Christmas at our apartment. I would decorate and cook and bake, though not as elaborately as my mother had—but she was appreciative that she didn’t have to do it all, so she took what we could give. I’d invite “holiday nomads,” friends who didn’t have family close by, especially those with children, and the place would get very loud and festive and silly. I found that I loved it.
But then things shifted again. First my father passed away, and my mother became increasingly nervous about traveling at night, even using a car service — she didn’t like being driven in the dark by strange men. So we began having earlier, shorter celebrations, without so many people. Then I suffered a serious illness, and though I recovered, my energy level remained low. That year my mother was our only guest, and we had spaghetti for dinner.
The following fall my mother grew ill; she died that December. We didn’t have the heart for any celebration at all.
The next year, Ben, who was then thirteen, announced that he was an atheist and wanted no part of this holiday hogwash, though of course he’d still be happy to receive presents, thank you very much. And that was the end of our holiday fuss.
Now we are the "holiday nomads." Usually I spend Christmas Eve with a close friend, and then our family visits another family on Christmas Day. It’s always fun, and though we bring dishes and presents, it’s not nearly as much work as hosting it ourselves. It’s also much less stressful than celebrating at my parents’ house ever was. It’s exactly the way we always used to want it.
And I miss the old days so much.