I could have written a post about how great Christmas is, peace on Earth and all that, because I do, in part, believe that, but the reality is that most of us will spend Christmas with our families, acting out all of our unresolved issues, pushing each other’s buttons, counting the seconds until we can make a graceful exit. This story comes from the book I’m writing, and I wanted to post it for everyone whose Christmases fall short of their hopes and expectations.
I don’t go home for Christmas anymore. The last time I did, I drove with a friend in a blizzard from Washington, D.C., starting at rush hour. It took us four hours to get to the Maryland House rest stop, normally a one-hour drive. My friend called her parents and arranged for me to stay overnight in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Four hours later, we got there and went straight to bed. In the morning, the roads were clear so I set out for my parents’ house outside of New York City. I got there four hours later but let’s back up. In at least 10 phone conversations preceding my visit, I’d told my parents specifically that I wanted New York pizza on Christmas Eve. “Oh, sure,” they said. “We’ll get pizza.”
The minute I got to the house, my mother said, “I changed my mind. We’re having steak tonight.” I whined, “But you promised me pizza!” Let me explain. They have steak in D.C. As any transplant from the tri-state area can tell you, they do NOT have New York pizza in D.C. It was, and still is, a really big deal for me to have pizza whenever I am in New York. And since I had emphasized my desire relentlessly, I thought my parents understood. They did not understand or just didn’t care.
So my mom starts to cook the steaks. I announce that I’m calling for a pizza because I do not want steak. It’s 6:30 on Christmas Eve and I’m worried that all the pizza places are closed, but I find one and order and I do go out and get a pizza. She has not cooked the steak by the time I get back. Instead of saving the steak for another night, my mother decides that she and my father will eat it and proceeds to cook it like this: She takes two individual metal tins, the kind they serve an eggplant parmigiana in, and puts a steak in each. Then she sets them under the broiler. After she cooks them, she takes them out of the pans, having never intended to use the serving pans to serve them. Why didn’t she just use one pan? They both fit in one. It drives me crazy but I tell myself this is not my problem. I eat my pizza and my parents eat their steaks.
The next morning, I wake up and the only presents under the tree are the ones I put there myself. This sounds petty but it is Christmas morning and my parents are quite comfortable and they did ask me what gifts I wanted. So I ask if we’re going to open presents. My father says “Wait a minute, go upstairs,” like I’m seven, but I’m holding out hope so I do. When he calls me back downstairs there is a brown plastic grocery bag, twisted at the top, sitting under the tree. My father says “Merry Christmas!” and I open the bag. It’s a King James Bible and some cleaning solution for my Calphalon pots, neither of which are wrapped and both still stuck with price tags. And then he points out an envelope sitting on the branches. It’s a window envelope, torn at the top and taped back together. I open the envelope and there’s money in it. Merry Christmas. I am grateful for the presents and the money but would it have been even possible to expend less effort to make a nice Christmas? I drove 12 hours for this? I left the next day and vowed never to spend Christmas in New York again.
When I was a kid, Christmas was fun. My father would stay awake all night putting an elaborate toy together and Santa would get all the credit, but we wrapped presents and decorated the Christmas tree and on Christmas Day we’d either go to my mother’s family or they would come to us. The kids would run around and we’d play with our new toys, but all of the cousins my age were boys so if I got a doll or an easy bake oven I had to wait to play with it. We’d all have turkey or lamb and the grownups would sit around the table long after we were excused. As my mother’s family aged and my oldest cousin got her own house, we’d sometimes go over there but we eventually stopped seeing family on holidays altogether. My mom’s family stopped inviting us and my mother was too hurt to invite them. So our holidays turned into the Bellos family tradition of:
1. Do whatever you’re doing during the day. My father would be in the garage, my mother in the kitchen and I in my room;
2. Cook a turkey breast;
3. Call everyone to eat a silent meal around 4 p.m.;
4. Go back to what you were doing.
It’s my fault I was disappointed that Christmas. Why did I expect better? The truth is, I never gave up on expecting more from my family and I was always disappointed.
Now I’ve got the chance spend Christmas with the family I’ve chosen — my husband, my daughter — sometimes my in-laws and close friends. I push traditions on everyone. Last Christmas Eve, I read Rose the nativity story, followed by ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” then “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” just to give her some perspective. I’m not sure how much perspective a one-year-old can really get, but it doesn’t become a tradition unless it’s repeated and I had to start somewhere.
We open presents Christmas morning. Last year Rose didn’t know what Christmas was, but she knew she liked it. She opened the boxes with our help and then flitted from one toy to the next, burning all that pent-up winter energy until nap time, then I was able to make Christmas dinner. Our friends were supposed to visit from West Seattle, but we’d been snowed in for a week by then and since there are roughly two snowplows in the entire county, and three more in Seattle, the roads wouldn’t allow for travel so we postponed it until the following weekend. The day they came I made old school Greek lamb and orzo, and we ate and drank and were generally merry. No family, no strife, and no big story to tell.
My Christmases aren’t Norman Rockwell paintings but I do enjoy them now. And it was all about finding the right company. I hope that if you believe in Christmas and want to enjoy it, you’ll soon find the Christmas that makes you happy.