I was talking to my mom on the phone last week, and she said something about having seen my sister, and being really happy that my sister had told her how much she loved all the Christmas traditions we had growing up. And I told my mom that I, too, loved our Christmas celebrations. At the time, I just thought we did all these things for Christmas because they were just what people did, but it was interesting to find out that my mom did them in part because she wanted my sister and me to have these kinds of great memories.
I should note that we grew up almost entirely irreligious--my half-brother usually spent Christmas with us and he'd often go to mass on Christmas day, and my dad would usually go with him (despite my dad's lack of religion the rest of the year; my dad grew up surrounded by Slovak Catholicism, but I think he left it all behind after he and his first wife divorced. I don't know whether this is because, going through the divorce, he lost his faith, or because he didn't lose his faith, but felt cast-out as someone who had divorced). And there were a couple of Christmases where my mom was part of a handbell-ringing group, so we went to a service of some kind (whether on Christmas or not, I don't remember) to hear my mom play carols on her bells, but I had no concept of the religious purpose of the event. So Christmas for us was never about celebrating Christ's birth--my mom said once that she tried to teach my sister and me about Jesus and Mary and everything, "but it just came out sounding so unbelievable."
Christmas was about getting and (when when I grew older) giving gifts, I'll confess to that. I'm sure that much of its appeal when I was a kid was that I got mountains of stuff. (Which I did--maybe because my parents probably didn't get very much in the way of gifts when they were growing up?) It's funny, though, because I eventually figured out that it couldn't be all about presents, because whether I had a few things or tons of things, there always came that moment when there were no more gifts to open, and you were still the same person as before. Getting mounds of things didn't magically make me better or happier than I was before the mounds of things; there were always specific items I was thrilled to have, especially when I was little, but the key to my happiness or sorrows couldn't lie in some inanimate thing.
Which is probably something I can say only because I always had lots of inanimate things.
But what I really remember was--as corny as it sounds--the magic of the season. My mom used to tie green ribbons on red glass balls and hang them from the wall sconces and chandelier in the dining room (doesn't chandelier sound fancy? hanging light fixture is probably more accurate). We had electric candles that got set up in all the windows in the front of the house (they were ancient with frayed cords--I remember plugging one in in my sister's bedroom and suddenly finding myself lying on the floor about 5 feet away. Ah, the days before consumer safety laws...). Our tree always had the big colored lights on it (classic 1960s-1970s), and big silver tinsel garlands, and the same ornaments year after year, augmented by the new ones my parents put in our stockings. My mom made certain kinds of cookies that only appeared at Christmas (Mexican wedding cookies and chocolate crinkles. She also made mince pies, but I wouldn't eat those.) She made a traditional English Christmas pudding each year (made around October and put aside to age properly. I didn't eat that, either, though my sister liked the hard sauce, which is basically buttercream frosting with brandy in it).
Anyway, I could go on and on. The long and short of it is, my parents did a great job at making Christmas special for us--a festival of abundance, color, and lights, during the darkest, coldest, bleakest time of the year.
But it's been hard to maintain those kinds of traditions. My dad is no longer with us, and we no longer live in the beautiful house in snowy New England, where he'd bring in logs and light a fire in the fireplace on Christmas day. If I spend Christmas with my mom and sister, it's in Florida, and while I've grown quite fond of palm trees draped in colored lights, it's just not quite the same. More often, we spend the actual holiday apart--since it was never about the religious meaning, for us, we simply try to reproduce the warmth and festivities at those times when we can get together; it doesn't have to be on December 25.
The other thing is that NLLDH is not very interested in Christmas. He's not actively opposed to the holiday, but he just doesn't consider it his holiday. I'm not sure how his family used to celebrate when he was growing up, but his parents are actively anti-religious (as opposed to just lapsed, like both of mine were), so certainly he never cared about the birth of Christ part either.
It's a little hard to carry on traditions by yourself. NLLDH would never begrudge me anything I wanted to do in celebration, but it's all on me; I know he won't care either way. We have no kids to create traditions for (the cats certainly don't care, and in fact, NLLDH was always worried that if we set up a tree, Youngest Cat would pull it over--which he's done--and hurt himself on broken glass ornaments or by eating tinsel). And our apartment is small, with little room for decorations, which would look a bit out of place surrounded by the usual clutter and mess.
But this year I'm going to make the effort. I'm going to get a string of lights or two to drape the windows with, or maybe even a pre-lit mini (fake) tree. Or maybe, just maybe, I can find a wee little real tree, a Charlie Brown kind of tree that no one else wants, and rig up a stand. I'll wrap a few small gifts for NLLDH and make him open them with me on Christmas morning. And in the nights leading up to Christmas, I'll turn off the ordinary lights and turn on the colored ones, maybe light a few candles, and sit in light amidst the darkness, warm despite the cold, and countdown to the turning point of the year, when the sun begins to return to us again.