Growing up, the most sleepless night of the year was always Christmas Eve. The festivities would begin with Church at First Baptist in the afternoon, and even though I sang terribly, I would belt out the hymns like one of the Herald Angels. For weeks before I would play What Child is This and It Came Upon a Midnight Clear ad nauseum on the piano, but Silent Night was always my favorite during service. I loved turning the candles into miniature wax sculptures, taking the flame of my cousin Megan’s and softening my own, shaping it into a bracelet or a candy cane or dripping the melted wax onto my arm for that hurt-so-good sensation.
After celebrating the birth of Jesus in proper fashion, the gang would relocate to my family’s house. It included my brother, my grandparents, my Aunt Mary and Uncle Pat, their children (usually all four of them, until life turned corners), and my Aunt Marty before she died. My dad always came to Church with us, but sometimes my mom would have to stay home and finish cooking. Dinner for 12 was no easy task, especially with rugrats zipping in and out of the kitchen sneaking morsels of food.
The menu was the same every year – coconut crusted chicken stuffed with cranberries, green beans, mashed potatoes, steamed cranberry pudding with butter rum sauce. And if it hadn’t been for the needling anticipation of opening presents immediately after, it would have beat out Thanksgiving as my favorite meal. But that itching desire to find out the contents of those carefully wrapped boxes proved too much to bear- I would wolf my food down in a minute flat.
For Christmas Eve, we only opened the gifts from the guests in attendance (excluding our own parents- those we saved until the big day.) But since my grandparents always spoiled us with wonderful gifts, the nightly unwrapping was usually just as good as the morning. We would open one at a time, starting with the youngest and moving to the oldest.*
Finally, when all of the wrapping paper had been piled high between the couches, we would head back into the dining room for games if time allowed. I liked Scattergories the most. The laughter over my grandfather’s challenges to my cousin Dan would fill the entire house with a warmth unmatched by any fireplace.
The evening should have exhausted me, and it did, but it was still not enough to overcome the excitement of the next morning. I would lay in bed staring at the ceiling for what felt like hours, while visions of Skittles and My Little Ponies and American Girl doll clothes danced in my head. At some point I would drift off for a few hours, but the beckoning call of Santa’s stocking assured I would be up with the sunrise.
We had our tradition Christmas morning as well, just the four of us, opening stockings first, then once again going around carefully unwrapping and savoring one gift at a time. We would finish sometime around 10 or 11, and then head into the kitchen for waffles or pancakes or dutch babies, or some other carb-laden food slathered in sweet syrup. I loved this tradition. I still love this tradition. But things change. Nothing ever stays the same.
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For the first time in my life, I did not sleep under the same roof as my parents over Christmas. I did not open any presents on Christmas Eve, nor go to Church with them.** We still opened presents together Christmas morning, and had our wonderful coconut crusted chicken dinner with 12 people that night featuring Scattergories and several bottles of wine (a new addition to the tradition for the kids). But I fell asleep and woke up next to a boy, in a house with his family.
While it felt strange to be splitting the time between families, especially since the relationship is in that remarkable stage of infancy, it also somehow felt right. I don’t mean that I want to buck the traditions of my own family, because like I said, I love them, and they will be in my life forever. But being with him, experiencing another family’s Christmas, I realized how ready I am to start creating my own traditions.
In a lot of ways, I still feel like a child, especially around the holidays, when remembrances of the past flood in and overwhelm the senses. But the truth is I’m 29 years old, and while I never want to stop being childlike, I’m very much an adult. I could feel it at Christmas Eve, when the boy’s best friend’s 18 month old son clung to my chest, attempting to feed me an apple, giggling at his own flirtatious ways, triumphantly sounding out my name. When we got back to the house, he was allowed to open a present, the only one to do so, and I wondered if I would be seeing his smiling face again next year. Perhaps, perhaps not.
Growing up can be painful, and the holidays can often exacerbate it. History and Hallmark create expectations. The coming of the New Year reminds us of all those that have past, of things that have changed, people we have lost. But it can also be beautiful. With each death a rebirth, with each cycle of life comes new meaning. I witnessed this over and over again this last year, and it’s continued to deepen my appreciation for this life. It’s all a process. Who knows what 2015 will bring, or what will happen with the boy, or where I’ll be next Christmas, but I’m ready to find out.
Happy New Year Everyone!
*I think this spotlight on each individual present may have turned me into the gift giver I am today. I love coming up with super specialized unique presents, ones from the heart.
**Even though I’ve been agnostic for a decade, I still enjoy Christmas services. A bittersweet nostalgia for beliefs lost and found.