Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve and Beliefs

If our family had kept the Christ in Christmas, as the slogan of a few years ago goes, we would have never celebrated it. My parents were atheist/agnostic, and not interested in belief.

However, we had a tree, and lights: white ones on the part of the tree that shone out to the outside world, color lights for inside the house. There was magic there, in the jokes, in the presents, in the lights and in the Handel's Messiah and other classical music. The wine. Herring filets on Ritz Crackers with Mertz's cheese spread. Potato chips with French Onion Dip.

In other words, we had traditions.

Sometimes I think I miss my parents on holidays like this. I do. I miss them. I miss these traditions, though I barely celebrate Christmas anymore. I could bring any of these back, enact these traditions. Fundamentally, though I miss childhood, which I know I can't get back. None of us can.

So what can I take from that to believe in? Carry forward?

As a kid, Christmas was primarily about gifts.
There were the larger gifts, things that didn't fit under the tree.

We would usually each get one larger gift for Christmas, with some smaller, less expensive things. For the most part, larger gifts went unwrapped, still in boxes, disguised in the basement, a place none of us kids went for fun. Our abandoned toys were down there - legos and a wonky ping-pong table, for instance. But so were: a saw that looked like a scary beast with a huge eye, mice, a roaring furnace and some stinky cat boxes.

In the crevices around the leaky water heater, Dad somehow hid a Huffy bicycle. The tag didn't say anything at all about the bike. No hint at the large gift:

For: Mimi (my childhood nickname)
From: Your Secret Admirer (Grandpa's sometimes moniker for himself when giving to me)
From: Santa (though none of us pretended Santa existed and we all knew what Dad's handwriting versus Mom's was)

This would be on a small box, jewelry sized, but since it was saved towards the end of opening presents,  it was a ruse. Open the box and find a note inside. The note says to go to the bathroom, and look inside the cabinet that holds the toilet paper. In there, another note, this one cryptic and making me guess where to go next: "Follow the trail your boots take in from the snow, but in reverse," and down the side steps to look inside a boot. Another note. All taking me to the basement, of course, some family trailing behind (usually my two brothers) and grandparents and parents having a giggle and smoke and drink in the living room while we scurry around as if the present is for all of us.

The bicycle, my first cool bike, a pink and grey ten speed, in a box in the basement where I would not have guessed somehow.

Something else our entire family did do was puns. Jokes. Gag gift wrapping. 

Punning and joke references were saved for when we were older. There was a constant trend of ongoing oblique references to what was inside a gift. Since we made up wish lists and some part of them was fulfilled, we could begin to guess based on the tags. Mom's got out early enough to give us a few days of this; Dad's usually went out on Christmas Eve itself, alongside the kids' gifts for parents and, later, each other.

For: The Biggest Female Fan Under 18 
From: David Gahan's Publicist
(For me - A Depeche Mode poster I had been eyeing at the music shop)

All of this points to many things. 

Intactness: Though my grandparents were one each from Mom's side and Dad's side, single because of dead partners by the time I was young, there was a feeling of wholeness for me as a kid. Two brothers, two parents, two grandparents. No aunts or uncles or cousins, but plenty of love.

Comfort: Dad worked at a tech college. There were lean years in there, but we never worried about having enough to eat or if there would be gifts at all. Yes, we didn't always get what we wanted. But when do we? It was always ok. Always enough in the end. We had a home, our own, food, and presents. And presence. Each other.

Humor: My family did puns, jokes, gags. Besides the labels on gifts, there was plenty of riffing at the holiday meal table. And gifts themselves, especially those for Dad, often catered to his funny bone. Especially word-based, political riffs. For instance, a bumper sticker gift for Dad: "This year is the first time the South loves North" (in reference to Ollie North in the late 80's). We all got, or understood enough, these jokes. They were our religion - political puns.

Privilege. All of these things show privilege. Education, finances, togetherness. No one had to work on a holiday. We had enough to get by, especially with help from grandparents. We were observing the dominant holiday, even if we didn't believe in the religiosity behind it.

Whenever I look at my own privilege I want to say: 
But, then they died. 
Then I lost them. 
Then our family fell apart. 

But that doesn't take away from the richness I had. We had. Still have, in other forms.

My brothers are alive, though we don't celebrate holidays formally together much anymore. They both have good kids. One has a loving partner. I have a loving partner. And I have my loving partner's intact and welcoming family. I am here. I am alive, with these memories, and an ability to make new traditions, habits, memories. And to understand that my family, despite our atheism and skepticism, our tendency towards politics over religion, also got the magic of the season.

I recognize now my parents did believe in some things: 
The importance of tradition. 
The power of surprise and humor. 
The importance of family. 

Things all of us can believe in and enact, regardless of when, how or whatever we celebrate .

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