I used to bake beautiful things for Christmas — intricate cookies, homemade breads, from-scratch pies. Then I had kids.
Immediately Christmas became all about them. I was no longer interested in making perfect cookies. I wanted to create perfect Christmas memories.
Sounds great, right? But I’m so grim about it! I have a to-do list, and the fun things are right there next to the non-fun things: “wrap presents,” “return gift,” “gingerbread houses,” “make Christmas cookies,” “see Christmas lights.” And then I cross them off as I accomplish them, as if they were one more burden of the season. You can almost hear me muttering, “We will have fun, dammit …”
We have several traditions that I know will make great memories in the future, when my kids are grown and gone and the memories are all I have left. I can’t imagine putting up a tree by myself. I can’t imagine Christmas morning without kids yelling and racing down the stairs. It will be so quiet. I feel compelled to enjoy every second.
So the kids put their special ornaments on the tree, and this year I was distressed that they couldn’t coordinate their schedules to do it together. Each kid put his or her ornaments on the tree alone. Sheri did hers after I’d gone to bed. The tree is beautiful, the ornaments bring back memories, but I miss them all dancing around me, holding up their ornaments for the others to admire, demanding to hear the story — again — of each ornament. It took forever. It was wonderful.
Each year I get each kid their own package of sugar cookie mix, and they make their dough and roll it out and cut the shapes they want out of my huge cookie cutter collection. Each kid has their own decorating style. Rachel is very precise and careful. Sheri flings sugar with artistic abandon. Nick can’t be bothered with the frilly stuff — he prefers to use cake icing just on what he’s actually going to eat. Or he’ll cut the snow man in half and line the cut part with red icing. But between jobs and studies and Nick’s BB-gun war schedule, it was hard getting them all together at the same time. It went a lot faster, too. They’re so efficient and neat now. In years past I’ve taken them outside to pat off the flour, and we’ve been enveloped by clouds of white. They always ended up with dough in their hair and flour all over their faces. The floor would be littered with sprinkles. The table would be coated with dried flour and water. The sink would be full of cookie sheets and mixing bowls and cookie cutters with dough dried into concrete in all those corners. I almost wanted to cry when they were done.
What would my husband be doing during all of this? He’s a smart man. He’d hide. I’m just scary during the Christmas holidays.
This year, it took days of haranging to finally get them all to the kitchen table to decorate their gingerbread houses. Each kid gets their own house, and I always buy way too much candy to decorate with. This year, Rachel’s roof would not stay on. As usual, Sheri and Nick would not stop making icing beards and mustaches. Or throwing sprinkles at each other. But the houses look great. Every year they get more detailed. And we have piles of unused gum drops, so Rick’s happy. Ruffy used to clean up the floor for me, but now I have to use a broom.
Then there’s the Christmas lights. We always go to our local park, where the parks and rec people set up beautiful displays. The kids would look for their favorites — “Oh, there’s the geese flying over the road!” “There’s the skier — wait, Dad, make him fly over us!” “The sledder and the snowman — that’s my favorite!” When they added something new, the kids would be delighted and a little unsure whether this display measured up to the old favorites. We’d put on our pajamas and wrap up in blankets. I’d give everyone a to-go cup of hot chocolate and pop a big bowl of popcorn. The kids would fall asleep on the drive home. This year we’re struggling to find a time that everyone can get together. Rick was working nights; Sheri was working weekends; Rachel had finals. We’re hoping to go on Christmas Eve. Otherwise it will be the first time we’ve missed the display in almost twenty years.
When I was a kid, Mom and Dad had one rule: No one gets out of bed before 6:00 a.m. But that didn’t work with my brother Vic. Vic would get so over-excited every Christmas that he would be a bear all December. My mom would actually try to hide the date from him as long as possible. “No, it’s still November. Not close to Christmas yet.” So by Christmas morning, his patience was stretched to the breaking point. He would sneak down the hall to my room at 4:00 or 5:00, and we’d tiptoe out to the living room, skin tingling with terror at getting caught. Never occurred to us that Mom and Dad could hear us. I remember the year I got a set of metal kid-sized kitchen appliances — fridge, stove, table and chairs. I could hardly see them in the dark, but I could barely breathe for excitement. Mom did great stockings, full of candy and little presents, always with a Barbie or GI Joe sticking out the top. Vic and I would sneak back to my room with our stockings and wile away the hour or so until 6:00 stuffing our faces with chocolate and playing with the little toys.
At 6:00, Vic would tear through the house yelling, “It’s Christmas!” Curt, the oldest, was always grumpy. He could never understand why we had to do Christmas so early. I’m sure he was the same way when he was little, but he was five years older than me, so by the time I could remember, he was a mature little gentleman. Mom and Dad made us open presents one at a time, prolonging the agony of curiosity. Then Mom would make cinnamon and pecan rolls from refrigerated tubes.
Now Vic’s kids wake him up at the crack of dawn, Mom’s best revenge. Curt’s wife still makes the cinnamon and pecan rolls for his family. And I do elaborate stockings that take forever to go through. Even the pets get stockings.
So I marshall my family like a general, making sure every tradition is done to perfection, every memory carefully logged for the future. I know my kids will treasure those memories like I do mine, and my husband and I will come alive in their minds every Christmas morning long after we’re gone, like my dad still does for me.