Ah Christmas! Are you just about over it? The good Lord knows we should be. I learned something this year and I thought I’d share it with you.
The Barbie Christmas
Santa made his ultimate delivery to me back in the Sixties. I woke to a living room full of Barbie wonders. The house, the car – pretty much everything.
I’d gotten my first Barbie a few years before, a blonde ponytail version with too much mascara, and was crazy about the concept. For me, the hook was the clothes. I cherished every tiny plastic mule for my Barbie’s fashionable feet. I adored the tiny plastic hangers and black patent cases.
My Barbie, Ken, Midge, Allan, Francie and Skipper had no fantasy world. I just enjoyed dressing them up. Then I had almost as much fun putting the tiny shoes back in their tiny compartments and hanging the outfits back into their designated spot. Looking at my cache of Barbie paraphernalia, neatly stacked in a corner of my room, was its own form of pleasure.
The Next Christmas Morning
Somehow, between that orgy of pink-striped packages and Santa’s next visit I lost my original affection for the holiday. I guess I finally figured out the truth about the fat guy in red, but since I had a sister who was five years younger, the charade continued.
Under the tree that year were LP’s for our new stereo. I’m sure Santa delivered the LP’s to relieve my parents from the necessity of hearing “Try to Remember” on auto repeat. We’d had the stereo for several months, but Rick Nelson had been my only album. Santa made some great musical choices. One LP of Spanish guitar classics called “Espana” I still have and play to this day.
The Paradigm Shift
I behaved as enthusiastically that morning as I had for my Barbie hoard the year before or for the Madame Alexander Bride doll a few years before that or the year I got my tricycle. See, my post-Barbie Christmas was the year I started giving rather than receiving, I just didn’t realize it at the time.
When I wandered out into the living room, I had been hoping for Barbie Orgy Part Deux. “The 50 Guitars of Tommy Garrett” were all well and good, but certainly Mattel had produced something that year which belonged under my tree. However, when I looked at my Mom to voice my complaint, I saw her face. It had the very same look of eager expectation I’d seen when the floor was covered in pink-striped packages of Barbie clothes. My complaint caught in my throat and instead of complaining, I threw my hands up in glee and praised Santa for his marvelous choices.
The Charade Continued
All the Christmases after the Barbie Orgy became a parade of hidden disappointments. Like the year Mom decided to stuff my stocking with money instead of the wonders I once found there – even after all pretenses of Santa had ended. I loved the glowing tangerines, toothbrushes, jewelry – even foot deodorant. Each odd choice Mom made felt like love. My bromodosis ended long before the plastic blue and yellow bottles of Dr. Scholl’s did, but that was part of the charm. The money felt like a betrayal of our silent pact.
Eventually Mom got even more practical than foot powder. She started taking me out with her to buy my Christmas presents. She said it was to be sure I was getting what I wanted, but in doing so, she took the joy out of my performances. Instead of being allowed to voluntarily offering up my gift of excitement, Mom was now in on it. But I didn’t stop, because each year it would be there – that eager look of anticipation on her face – even when we both knew there wasn’t even the teeniest bit of surprise for me to display.
And It Got Harder
For most of my life, Christmas had been a December event, but during my first year of college Christmas invaded November. Mom insisted I set up the tree while I was home for Thanksgiving. It hadn’t been on my agenda and I really resented the timetable, but I dove into the task as if I was dying to do it. That was the beginning of mission creep. Christmas continued to grow until it dominated the year. Woe be to those who failed to commit to every detail of Mom’s Christmas planning by mid-July.
Christmas was written in stone, especially my role in it. Mom served prime rib and shrimp cocktail on the good china on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day it was turkey and all the trimmings on her Christmas china. The ritual of opening gifts went on for what seemed like centuries, but it always began with a “Christmas program.” Something that made sense when the objective was to keep children in mind of the true meaning of Christmas, but had lost all of it’s charm – for everyone except my mother.
Then the day after Christmas we stormed out of the house to buy up everything loose. Even in the years I could barely afford to buy pantyhose to wear to work, I’d head out with Mom and buy armloads of things I didn’t need. Never once in all those years did we actually talk about any of this. I just knew I was doing what was expected of me.
The Final Years
There came a day when my mother could no longer produce the holiday extravaganza that was our Christmas. By that time it had grown all out of proportion. When Mom finally gave up on her annual frenzy I was dubbed the Queen of Christmas and the celebration’s headquarters moved to my house. I tried desperately to reproduce the wonder my mom had once created with that multitude of Barbie merchandise, but I fell sadly short. At the time I blamed myself, but now I understand that I was trying to work miracles with my hands and my feet tied behind me.
I could make all the scalloped oysters in the world, but while I could make it taste just like Grandmother’s had, the dish couldn’t fill her absence. No matter how delicious my cornbread dressing was, it couldn’t replace Aunt Edie peering into the oven to check on her specialty. Even my dad had lost his gleeful participation in the charade, because arthritis had stolen more than golf. It also took away his joy.
I felt alone in my frustration. My sister never had the Christmas bug and still doesn’t even decorate her own home for the season. My husband had no idea why I made such a big deal about it all. Only my mother seemed to care. Looking back I have come to wonder if she was also playing a role, one where she pretended to want to have the kind of Christmases we once did.
Then there was the year hot rolls were added to our menu. One of my mom’s dear, sweet friends insisted on providing us with delicious yeasty rolls, but instead of arriving piping hot on a baking sheet, I was given a bowl of dough the day before. I am no pastry chef. I will spare you the pain of going through that episode with me, but it included waking up my husband much earlier than he wanted to be wakened – and when I woke him I had tears running down my face and sticky dough up to my elbows. There was a part of me that longed for the day I would no longer have to keep up this charade, but at the same time I hated to think of what that would mean.
The White Elephant in the Room
I lost Mom in 2013. Last year I didn’t even decorate for Christmas because we were camping out in a rent house. My husband applauded the wisdom of my decision, but before the season was over, we both regretted it. Even without Mom looking over my shoulder, it seems I am the Queen of Christmas.
This year I decorated my beautiful new home. There was joy in unpacking each holiday treasure, especially since so many were my mom’s or my aunt’s. There was also the disappointment of discovering my very fashionable yellow and blue decor did not compliment my red and green ornaments. My best decorative items, in shade of white, completely disappeared into the yellow walls. The queen was struggling.
Then we went to a Christmas party with a Chinese Gift Exchange. You know the drill. You get to choose whether you want to open something under the tree or steal something already unwrapped. I was number 15, somewhere in the middle of the pack. When it was my turn, all the really good stuff had already been through the maximum number of trades, so I opened something under the tree. I’m not sure what I expected, but the Russian military hat and trinket box had not been on the list. Other folks had gotten charming decor items and generous gift cards. Someone had mistakenly assumed this was a White Elephant gift exchange. I’d been the unlucky recipient of their joke.
I stuck the hat on my head at a jaunty angle. Everyone in the room was thrilled. No one dared steal my present, because the hat was so perfect for me. I felt a painful tug at my heart, but shoved it away so I could continue to please everyone with my feigned joy.
When I woke up the next morning I realized that for just a moment, I had re-captured the bittersweet joy of Christmas Past. In exulting over my Russian cap I had given everyone in the room a wonderful gift, one that only I could give them, because I’d been training for that moment most of my life. I finally understood that it is more blessed to give than receive, but it broke my heart. The performance had been for Mom and she’s not here anymore.
I will continue to be the Queen of Christmas. Each year, I’ll pull out my decorations. I will make as many small moments as I can for my husband and my friends, but my best audience will never look at me with eager anticipation again. Giving her all those years of Christmas joy was the greatest present I ever got. I’m just sorry it took me so long to figure that out.