We spilled out of the car, my brother and I rushing into the long lines of evergreens. The fresh, sharp smell of short-leaf pines wrapped around us as we bickered over whose turn it was this year to pick “The Tree”. Eventually, our mother settled the debate. We wandered around, my brother and I darting ahead until whoever was choosing finally settled on one. Dad inspected it, testing the limbs, gauging the height. He nodded. It would do. A man came and chopped down the tree.
Choosing the year’s Christmas tree was a ritual we did as a family every year until I was in my mid-teens. It was always on the first of December, not because there was any special significance to the date, but because that was when my father received his disability check from Veteran’s Affairs. Memories of holidays, for the most part, are pleasant ones for me. Pleasant childhood memories are precious, because there aren’t that many. We weren’t exactly the white, Southern version of the Huxtables.
For one thing, we were very poor. For another, my parents were addicted to alcohol and drugs. Any money for Christmas presents was got after a visit to a pawn shop. One item around the house would vanish only to be replaced by something else given on Christmas morning. Tensions over money, compounded by substance abuse and my own parents’ issues, made for shouting matches that sometimes ended with my mother bleeding and crying on the floor. But during Christmas, we could pretend we were the kind of family we saw in Christmas movies on CBS. We could sit beneath the tree we’d chosen, tear into the gifts that we might not own six months later because some unexpected bill came up, and pretend everything was better than it was.
I keep a couple of the traditions alive in different incarnations. To quell whining, my parents allowed us to open one gift on Christmas Eve. This has morphed into my husband and me exchanging gifts before or after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. When times were better and we could afford it, my mother baked mincemeat pie (which began my love affair of things English) and to this day, when I can afford it, I bake a mincemeat pie, even if I’m the only person who eats it.
Traditions and customs, not just the broad ones that define a culture or religion but also the small, quiet ones confined to a family, help to define us. They create memories as well as trigger them. They root us in our origins, whether we entirely like them or not.
I have a mixed feeling about my origins. On the one hand, there are some good memories, and I am proud of a few things my parents did. I love that I grew up in the country rather than the city, and it was my mother who taught me how to read, thereby opening whole new worlds and possibilities to me. At the same there, there’s much of my origins and my past that I would prefer to forget. There are quite a few people whose childhoods I envy. They got to be real children. (Anyone who has grown up with addicts for parents know what I’m talking about.)
Therefore, there are moments when Christmas feels very mixed to me. The religious aspects are pure. But when I’m opening presents, selecting a tree, baking a pie, or do anything that calls to mind the Christmases of the past, with their aura of faux-perfection, my stomach turns over. It suddenly becomes not so much fun to deck the halls.
Perhaps this is why I’m so adamant on creating new traditions or revamping the old. It’s almost as if I hope that I can reach back and change something. But the past is gone. There is no changing it. One can only focus on the present and try to draw the good things from the past. Christmas, after all, is fundamentally about hope and you can’t hope if you let the shadows of your past overtake your heart.