For some reason, I feel surrounded by people who love Christmas and revel in cookie exchanges, lights, and special dinnerware with seasonal themes. They might as well have “it’s the most wonderful time of the year” tattooed on their foreheads. I have a more ambivalent relationship with everything that commences after Thanksgiving and lasts until the holiday ornaments are stowed away in their special boxes…..
I should start at the beginning. I grew up, as I noted in my decluttering blog, in a Swedish-American family where Christmas was elevated to the critical role of proving that the American had not crowded out the Swedish. Unlike every other family that I knew growing up, Christmas Eve was the big event – the day when we brought in the tree and decorated it, where the “adult beverage” was glögg that my father made from a family tested (and highly alcoholic) recipe several weeks before. My mother worked all day to bake two kinds of Swedish bread (julekage and limpa), in addition to making a Julbord with Swedish cheese (no cheddar allowed!), lutefisk (look it up – ugh), potatiskorv (a bland Swedish sausage), and a miscellany of other things to keep the traditions alive. We made the four kinds of Swedish Christmas cookies (absolutely no red and green sprinkles) well ahead of time, of course, and served them up with a baked rice pudding. NOTHING COULD EVER BE CHANGED or SUBSTITUTED – and as others have noted, all the foods seemed to have been subjected to a “whitening agent” so that no color deeper than beige was visible. The American part was that Santa Claus came and the presents opened on Christmas Day.
When I had my own family, my parents were always part of my holidays, and the Christmas Eve traditions continued unabated (much to my children’s dismay). It was only after my mother died that, after a long consultation, we deleted the detested lutefisk and substituted fresh torsk (cod). I add, however, that because we lived in Minnesota we were able to get my father a takeout serving of lutefisk from a local restaurant…
Although I didn’t like the food very much, I always felt sorry for families who lacked the set-in-stone traditions that solidified their family identity. But life changes when the kids leave home, and they are able to make their own choices….And, with each year I “declutter” my holiday life by becoming temporarily willing to give up another tradition. Try to buy potatiskorv in Boston or Boulder (although if we were genuinely serious, we could have made our own, Instead, my sister and brother-in-law created a kind of pork burger-with-potato that almost passed).
Last week I was with a group of “women of a certain age” when the topic of “making it through the holidays” came up. The person who raised it felt rather anxious, because she was traveling “home” to a family gathering that included both frail parents and alcoholic relatives who had, in the past, behaved badly. She had already made a backup motel reservation…..
What an unexpected Pandora’s Box! As each woman spoke about their upcoming holiday plans, there was a consistent theme: Stress, low-level conflict, fatigue – and a sense that perhaps even the most vivid childhood memories of the perfect Christmas were less than truthful. One chimed in that she had always disliked Christmas, but her husband loved it. Recently married, they were traveling to another state to be with his parents in a retirement community. She looked hesitant when she described the trip. A third noted that, as an adult, she experienced Christmas as a time when people drank too much and were not always able to participate in the joyfulness that young children have when they see the lights and a stocking from Santa. But it was Sue, whose quiet story put me into alert mode: “My mother wanted everything to be perfect. Our tree was decorated to the teeth, with every matching ornament perfectly placed. The food was lovely, served on those special Christmas plates. Her wrapped packages were works of art before we tore in to them. And then, as soon as the packages were opened, she collapsed….” What I recall from my later adolescence was the same: My mother would go to bed starting around noon on Christmas Day, and we would not see her until late evening, as we munched on leftovers. While I never went quite as far in trying to create the perfect Swedish-American Christmas, as she said that, I remember vividly how quickly my Christmas Eve fun melted into fatigue….
Sue has found a new approach: Her husband makes a list of every Christmas light tour, pageant, special concert, etc. – and wants to do it all with her. They experience joyfulness because they have removed the work to get ready, the travel, the strained family relationships – by sequencing experiences that are fun, but not exhausting—while staying home. And whatever Christmas cookies they bake are ones that they like, and not those prescribed by tradition.
Part of my heart wants to cheer “Let’s try it – get rid of all of it except presents for the younger kids! Eat Thai takeout on Christmas Eve if we want to! Give the money we would spend on presents to the food shelf – or use it to take a real vacation! Maybe if we did less we might even be awake enough to go to a midnight candlelight service (isn’t that what we should be thinking about?)” But the other part (and I am split down the middle) screams “No! Family is cemented when the holiday traditions are strong but a little flexible! I really LOVE making stockings for everyone, and don’t want to stop! We already have given up on making only Swedish cookies—isn’t that enough?”
If I think Marie Kondo, I have to ask: Which of the traditions makes me smile and brings me joy? And, which could be adapted to a new generation – my grandchildren – for whom we all want to create a sense of being part of a special family time. And who will tell the stories about the takeout lutefisk unless there is the smell of julekage to elicit it?