I suppose many of us get sentimental during the various holidays for various reasons. Even the way we feel and express that sentimentality is different. Some of us didn't enjoy the holidays for one reason or another. Others of us had a glorious time. I grew up in a Catholic family at a time when my family went to church sporadically, and Santa Claus was magical and exciting. My dad had served in World War II and later in Korea. Each of those conflicts took him away from school and, after the second one, he never went back for his last semester. He had always written for newspapers, from high school, college and all the way through the navy. He married my mom and got a job as a cub reporter and photographer in Little Falls, New York where I was most likely conceived. Pretty soon they moved to Stamford, Connecticut and Dad started working his up through the ranks of the Stamford Advocate. Mom had grown up in Hempstead, New York, had gone to nursing school, and was working at a hospital as a Registered Nurse when she met Dad at an American Legion dance. It was the early 1950’s.
Christmas was both awesome and dreamlike for me and my brother while being stressful and nightmarish for our parents who had bought into the American Dream with it’s side dish of consumerism. Ever year was more spectacular than the next with piles of presents everywhere while Mom and Dad stretched themselves thin to create the magic. But it showed me another side of life, a side filled with magic with a sprinkle of hopes and dreams. Now, as an adult I can see the dark side of it clearly. After all, I was raised by them and learned from them. I have been to the dark side, but I can also see how much light was brought into the holiday in the form of magic.
Every Christmas Eve after dinner, we would all be together in the living room with a fire in the fireplace and without the television being on. We would sing a few songs then listen to our Christmas albums. There was always dancing. Mom and Dad were great dancers. I remember watching dad twirl mom around and dip her for a kiss. I remember standing on top of my dad's feet as he danced me around and learning how to do the Jitterbug. Dad's favorite Christmas album was Nat King Cole’s “A Christmas Song.” We also had Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” and albums by The Fred Waring Singers, the Norman Tabernacle Choir, Alvin and the Chipmunks and Sing-along with Mitch, of course. There were so many, I can’t remember them all. My favorite was a Spike Jones album with a fun version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Spike Jones had a zany band and used sound effects for the different parts in the song, impossible to describe but, for a couple of kids in the 50s, it was hysterically funny. My brother and I would be rolling around laughing. It was always the best night ever. Then, after leaving cookies and milk for Santa, in the light of the Christmas Tree under which were a few tantalizing gifts, Dad would read. “Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house …” My brother and I, too excited to sleep, but too exhausted not to, would trundle off to bed and fall fast asleep. Meanwhile downstairs, Mom and Dad hustled all of the presents from their hiding places and assembled the stockings while still finding time to dance to the records still playing.
Around midnight, Mom would excitedly come upstairs waking us kids while Dad, down by the fireplace, shouted, “Ho, ho, ho! Happy Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight!” I remember waking up, rubbing the “sleepy bugs” out of my eyes, realizing that Santa had just left, and rushing to the window to look out at the sky. A few times I saw Santa as clear as day. Other times, I missed him. My brother rarely saw him, but he was a deep sleeper, and younger than me after all. We ran downstairs to the living room lit only by the lights from the tree and stood in awe. It was true magic. Then Mom made cocoa and brought out snacks and we started opening presents. Dad always doled out the presents, while Mom made sure the mess didn’t get out of control. We would get to play with our new things until one of us was really yawning. Then we would stumble back to bed and collapse until morning. I knew that Dad’s parents had done Christmas that way, but Dad confessed to me later in life that the reason he and Mom decided to keep that tradition was so that they could stay in bed late the next morning. They were definitely late-night people and still very much in love. We didn’t even miss them until our stomachs started growling. My brother always got up first and started playing with his new toys. He often got up with the sun. He often got up before dawn and watched “American Farmer” on television. But not me. I loved to sleep in the morning because that’s when I dreamed. I’d already seen my gifts, so they could wait while I dreamed of sugar plums and basked in the “spirit of Christmas.”
The rest of the day was full of music, games, lots of cooking and always drinking. Sometimes other family members came, or we traveled, usually to Niantic, Connecticut where my grandparents lived. Depending on where the celebration was, most of the aunts, uncles and cousins would be visiting. Sometimes it was just a couple of families, but it always included Uncle Lou and Aunt Marty with their three kids our ages. We spent most holidays and many weekends with them. Uncle Lou and Dad were brothers and although they had their rivalries, they both had kids that were the same age which was convenient and fun. I know that Aunt Marty and Mom both felt that their families were neglected with so much time being spent with the Blais side, but it was such a wonderful thing for the cousins. We were one big family. However, when it was the whole tribe of Blais that showed up, that was when the magic dissolved. The Blais didn't treat each other very kindly. They were mostly verbally abusive and drank a lot. Eventually, a fight would break out, usually involving my youngest uncle and one of the older cousins, but There were plenty of other dramatic scenes. Aunt N and Uncle H always yelled at each other, teaching all of us younger set a new language. Uncle H got a kick out of calling Santa Claus on the telephone right before Christmas to tell him that one of us, often my younger brother, was bad and don't come. My brother would burst into tears and an argument would ensue over his treatment. Every holiday was quite dramatic with many players. At some point in every fracas, my older female cousin would scream and faint, pausing the action long enough for some intervention and peace keeping. We usually left soon after the fainting.
When I became a mother, I tried to recreate the magic. Christmas Eve became an evening of music, fun and food. After the kids went off to bed, Paul Cavanaugh and I finished assembling toys, sometimes working long beyond midnight but taking time to enjoy each other’s company. Once everything was ready, I ran upstairs waking the kids and rushing them to the window where they just might catch a glimpse of Santa’s sleigh. Meanwhile, Paul was downstairs with sleighbells, shouting, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight!” The kids walked into the living room lit up only by the tree and gazed in wonder. We opened stockings and gifts, and everyone went off to bed to find an easy morning whether you like to awaken early or sleep late.
The downside of my adult experience was that I was taught to overspend. I grew up in a neighborhood where most people seemed to have more than us. My parents struggled. In spite of this, they always provided Christmas. Paul and I struggled and wanted to do the same. But sometimes, it wasn’t feasible. Not surprisingly, one of my favorite Christmases was also one of our poorest times. Paul was out of work, and I was making less than minimum wage. We were living in Stephentown, New York in a mobile home we had bought with an inheritance. We had experienced a lot of moving pains and were still struggling to get back on our feet. I wasn’t sure if we would be having any Christmas at all. The true nature of Santa had already been revealed to the kids, so we didn't have to worry about broken hearts, just shattered dreams. One day in December I sat the family down together and explained the situation. I suggested that we give everyone something that we either made or found. I made sure to emphasize that find was not the same as take. I also offered to help with ideas and suggested making things together. It was such a fun month. We baked a lot, did crafts, and we sang all the time. Everyone took it seriously and thought about what they would give.
I knew that I would enjoy this unique holiday, but I also knew that when the kids went to school after the holiday and everyone was bragging about theirs gifts, they would be crushed. Because the kids were on the free lunch program in school, the school sent over a box of food sometimes for which we were always grateful. We didn't have to worry about food. One day, the Kiwanis Club came by with a box of gifts for the kids and a couple of things for me and Paul. They had gotten a li8st of needy families from the local schools. I started to cry. There was even an orange skateboard sticking up out of the top, a football, books and games. I don't remember most of the gifts that year, but I was given a Mickey Mouse watch that plays “It’s a Small World” by Paul who had found the face lying on the sidewalk one day as he was looking for work. I still own it, and it still doesn’t have a strap. I rarely put a new battery in it, but I often take it out and look at it, remembering that moment when I opened that box.
For a long time, I didn’t celebrate Christmas. When Paul and I divorced, I didn’t want to haggle over where the kids spent the holiday. I hated the consumerism that seemed to keep growing every season and longed for the magical side again. I decided to start celebrating the winter solstice. Paul could do Christmas if he wanted to. I moved out on Labor Day weekend. Our daughter had already moved out and was starting a family of her own. Our older son was living with his dad that first holiday season and our youngest son, who was three, lived with me. He believed in Santa and had experienced a couple of magical Christmases. How could I ask him to give that up? I thought long and hard about it and finally came up with a solution. Our new solstice ritual consisted of lighting a candle for every day starting on December 1st. As the nights were getting longer, we were bringing more light into our home. We lit the candles and held hands as we sang our candle song. I knew I wanted a special song to go along with the lighting and had learned this one years before in Girl Scouts. “Rise up oh flame, by thy light shining. Bring to us beauty, vision and joy.” It can be sung in a round with multiple part harmonies and sends a wonderful message. After singing that through for a while, we sang whatever anyone requested, sometimes Christmas Carols, sometimes Pop songs. Sometimes one of us had learned a new song or made one up and sang it. Sometimes we sang and sang, other times we sang one or two then read books or played games. It was a time to enjoy our together.
One of the things I had always hated about Christmas in the past was the anxiety that I felt as a child and later saw in my children and the children I worked with in school. As the month following Thanksgiving progressed, the children were bouncing off the walls with such a high level of anticipation, and the adults were stressed out and overstretched. In our house, because we lit candles every night, the snow fairies came randomly during the month leaving little gifts. Because there wasn’t that one big day to wait for, my son’s anxiety level was much lower than his peers. I could never compete with his friends’ families in the gifting department, but I created a magical scene that brought us closer together and that he could share with his friends when they slept over. The snow fairies were always prepared for a few extra kids.
I still light my candles throughout the month, softly singing my song. I still have my family over to celebrate on Solstice, or as close as I can get to it on a weekend. Until this year, the snow fairies always left a small gift bag with some useful things like lighters and homemade Chapstick, maybe some socks, little bits of candy, glow sticks or other light up toys and some nice small thing. Last year, I drafted all of the adults in the family to be official snow fairies. Each family or adult brought one thing for the bags. This year, all of the snow fairies are struggling, so we skipped it. We celebrated as a family, though we were missing a few, in our wide-open garage with two fires and a grill set up outside. I decorated the inside of the garage, trying to make it as festive as possible. I even used the extension ladder hanging horizontally on one wall, as a place to hang the lights and garland with ornaments hanging and battery powered led candles across the top and bottom. Mostly we huddled by the fire. We had fireworks in the snow and sang our song by the fire in parts, rounds, and comical descants. My current partner has always done Christmas on a small scale with homemade gifts and no big hurrah. He was not raised Catholic nor with much of any religion. His parents were a normal upper middle-class couple. On Friday, I will celebrate Christmas with him with wonderful food and a few small gifts. We may go for a walk in the quiet woods or maybe we’ll hunker down by the woodstove. Whatever we do, I know we will enjoy our time together in a stress-free place.
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