Growing up, Christmas meant:
Decorating the Christmas tree while listening to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker music. When I was little, it was a family activity. My mother had a tradition: every year, she’d buy a new ornament. Decorating the tree was a trip down memory lane, as we unwrapped the ever-growing collection of ornaments and remembered the context of each one. Some ornaments had belonged to my grandmother; some were from my mother’s childhood. As I grew older, and my mother’s health failed, I would decorate by myself. The satisfaction of seeing the tree lit at night was worth it. I would lie on the rug in the living room, in the dark, and watch the ornaments glisten in the bright strings of lights and imagine fairy tales. Magic seemed possible near that tree.
Walking in on my mother, sitting in the middle of her study, surrounded by heaps of presents, attempting to organize them into bundles by recipient. She’d start shopping in July, in order to take advantage of sales. Inevitably, come December, she had too many presents, and would fret about giving the right number of presents to each family member. Books! So many books. She kept reserves of new books in the closet of her study, in case she needed a bonus present for an unexpected visitor.
Going to the Catholic church 8 minutes away from my home. Due to my mother’s health, she rarely made the trek downtown to the 2 Russian Orthodox Churches in Montreal. During my youth, my father underwent a turbulent period in his faith. Therefore, it was up to my mother to take care of my religious education. She felt that any religion was better than no religion; she encouraged my attendance at the Catholic parish nearby. I did so, weekly, from the age of 8 until I was 22. I have so many fond memories of that parish: singing in various choirs, meeting my high school best friend, my first crush, a sense of community. As a family, we would go to that parish for Christmas Eve Mass, even after I had moved out; it was important to my mother that we remember the true reason behind the holiday brouhaha. There were years where my mother was too ill to attend – my father and I would go together, and she stayed home, upset that her health wouldn’t allow her to celebrate Christmas properly.
After Mass, coming home, and finishing wrapping the endless presents, as I watched my favorite movie, White Christmas (Bing Crosby! Danny Kaye!) with my mother. We’d drink wine and eat a stupid number of Christmas cookies. All presents (even for recipients we were only planning to see after the 26th) had to be wrapped and under the tree by midnight on the 24th so that come Christmas morning, the tree would look properly decadent. A symbol of the joyful family gatherings to come. My mother would fill out the To/From gift tags with the most absurd names: Santa, the Tooth Fairy, all of my teddy bears, Elvis Presley, Queen Elizabeth II and many others.
Christmas morning, in our pajamas. Opening presents. Feeling spoiled. Laughing. Listening to Christmas carols. Brunch. Lazying about. Eventually getting ready, and going to my godmother’s for her annual Christmas feast (in our stretchy pants, to allow for adequate room for all the food).
We haven’t decorated the Christmas tree since her death 3.5 years ago. My father doesn’t want the hassle of it in the big house, now that he lives alone.
My father hates shopping; doesn’t know what to give. He prefers giving birthday presents. So I give him his presents on Christmas Eve, and I shop for my cousins and store my presents at my apartment until its time for us to visit them. There are no gift tags. I have not heard from Santa since my mother died.
My father’s faith is renewed and ever deepening. He now attends the Russian Orthodox Church on the 25th, prior to my godmother’s feast. I’ve attended with him. But it is not the same. They don’t sing Christmas carols. There is no Nativity Scene. This year, he’s opted to celebrate Christmas based on the old calendar (January 7 – same as Ukrainian Christmas); he therefore didn’t need to go to church on the 25th. When I proposed that we could go, for old time’s sake, to Christmas Eve Mass at the Catholic parish, he declined, as he now feels himself too Orthodox, and does not approve of visiting churches as a spectator.
I firmly believe in Christmas magic, and fairy tales. I always have. I’m just struggling to find any, now that my Christmas traditions have all fallen away (except for my godmother’s Christmas dinner – as important as gravity and worldpeace). It’s tempting to give into the melancholy and cynicism that so many people suffer from during the Holidays. It’s easy to feel alone.
That would be a bigger betrayal of my mother than I’ll allow.
The magic might not be as easily accessible as it used to be, but that just means I have to look harder. Take a moment to appreciate the quaintly decorated houses. Find myself Christmas concerts nearby and go by myself or drag a few friends. Go for a night-time walk and breathe in the crisp air and imagine Santa hard at work. Write a few Christmas cards. Smile at a stranger crossing the street. Tell my friends I love them. Attend Christmas Eve Mass at a beautiful church, one close to my new home. Play the Nutcracker music as loud as I can in my decorated apartment. Watch White Christmas, snuggled with my teddybears, and eat a reasonable number of chocolate cookies.
I know traditions aren’t meant to last forever, and times are a’changing… but still.
I miss my Ma. She made Christmas good.
Previous Christmas-themed posts: