My mama had issues with Christmas and those issues affected me and helped me develop my own issues with Christmas. For me, memories of Christmas and Mama can never be separated. It was our special time to plan and execute our decorating schemes and in each other, we found that other person who could truly appreciate the beauty and efforts of our finished work. It was a magical time and Christmas day was the only day my dad ever let there be a real break from work; not even Easter had that distinction in our home.
After my brother Greg was born, Christmas was a stressful time for Mama. With Daddy still in graduate school and medical bills, there was not enough for the extras of Christmas. She felt terribly guilty about that. Then she felt guilty that my sister was able to enjoy her gifts while Greg wasn't able to respond to most of his toys. Then she felt guilty about feeling guilty about that. When Daddy became a full professor and they no longer had debt, she seemed determined to make up for all those Christmases. So, it was a big. deal. in our house.
Since I did not grow up Catholic, I did not observe Advent. For me, advent only meant a little calendar for counting the days until Christmas day. I doubt we would have even had the calendar if Mama had known it was one of those "Catholic things." When we moved to Natchitoches, the City of Lights, during my senior year of high school, Mama and I began decorating Thanksgiving day. It was the only way we could put up three full-size tree and many miniature ones, each decorated according to a theme, in addition to the outdoor decorations, before Christmas Festival weekend. We emptied all our built-ins in the den and filled it with little vignettes using our ornaments from different Hallmark series. Mama started collecting Hallmark in 1976 and the yearly wish-book and day-after-Christmas sales figure prominently in my Christmas memories. If you've seen the movie Steel Magnolias, you've seen a glimpse of Christmas in the City of Lights. It really is that big of a deal.
Then, I married a man whose enthusiasm for Christmas decorations matched ours. Mama began buying us ornaments and decorations and by the time E was born, we had almost twenty large Rubbermaid bins of decorations, in addition to those that were too bulky to fit in bins. Our huge walk-in closet in our apartment was full of only Christmas! E was born on Dec. 1 and I had our rental house decorated, including three theme trees.
As we continued to delve deeper into our Catholic faith, we began to feel that Christmas had lost its true meaning for us. We had several garage sales and got rid of bins of decorations. We began to wait to decorate our tree until Gaudete Sunday. We made a Jesse tree and the Advent wreath and empty manger were the focus of our decorations. It made for a much nicer, less stressful Christmas.
Then came the year that I decided to "really" observe Advent, not even buying presents until two weeks before Christmas. No Christmas music, because it's not really Christmas yet! No Grinch, Charlie Brown (even though it has the nativity as its focus), Scrooge, or any other videos because it's not really Christmas. Only angels and nativity decorations out! Poor Joey's Hallmark Grinch collection was eyed as if it were the source of all that is evil And what a miserable, stressed-out Christmas that was for us. I behaved as best described in the aforementioned Steel Magnolias when Ouiser wonders if perhaps a particular placement of a reindeer might be the cause of M'Lynn's bad mood.
Even though I grew up in a secular home, Christmas was the one time Jesus was mentioned, particularly by my father--in Christmas carols and oddly enough, reminders from him --as to "What Christmas Is Really About." Somehow, I still knew what--and Who--Christmas was about with those meager glimpses at home and especially what was shared with me by friends. You can find my letters to Baby Jesus in my second grade diary and in my notes to Santa, I mentioned the poor of the world and that most special Babe in the Manger. Because, you see Jesus is bigger than Christmas, and as Christ-centered as it's made, the season can't contain Him.
For those who truly carry Him within themselves, as their constant personal companion, share Him with those who have heard little or nothing of Him. They do so with their joyful hearts (joyful, not ha-ha-big-smile-happy) and their willing hands. It is done by those in homes festooned to the brim, trees trimmed before December and it is done by those with quiet, bare hearths that await the glories of seasonal decor during the final days and hours before Christmas day.
So, we're still finding our way in terms of Christmas and Advent. Last week, we went to look at Christmas windows and visit Santa Claus. Our mantle will be decorated this week and our tree will probably make its appearance before Gaudete Sunday. It's because our joy for the season of Christ's birth can't be contained. It's bigger than the calendar. Christmas is not about the food, decorations, and presents. But focusing on them is focusing on them, whatever the intent. I was more miserable focusing on avoidance of them than I was when they naturally occurred. So, for our family, finding the way through Advent and Christmas is finding the balance that honors the Christ Child, our Messiah, born to lead us out of darkness, and still preserves our precious memories of the past. Having lost both sets of parents, those memories, even the secular ones, are precious and hold greater meaning than ever for us. E's first Christmas was our last with Mama. I am ashamed to admit how horrified was I by the abundance of presents she bought E. I would surely have to fix that in the future was my thought--my judgement. I had no idea Mama would die only nine months later. A grandmother's generosity and love for seasonal decorating no longer seem like much of a problem now.
Maybe by the time the kids are grown, we'll have it all figured out. Then, they can analyze and change their holiday practices. Or, maybe, they'll be so joy-filled that their mother's over-analyzation won't have a place in their happy homes..