In my family, Christmas stockings are snuck into children’s beds on Christmas Eve, after they are asleep. The idea behind this is to prevent children from getting up at 4:00 am to demand presents; they’ll instead be distracted long enough for the adults in the household to get something resembling a decent night’s sleep.
My brother and I shared a room until I was 11. He was always a much better sleeper than I was, which I believe was self-defense: I’d want to talk to him after we were in bed. I have many memories of looking up at the top bunk, going on and on about heaven knows what, until I heard his breathing deepen and slow. He’d fall asleep in the middle of my monologue, every time. I always felt bereft.
Which is to say past a certain age we were never asleep when the Christmas stockings showed up. I liked to squeeze the outside of the stocking, and try to figure out what was inside by the feel. I was always wrong. Often my brother slept through this, or I thought he did; one year he whispered that it was morning, and therefore it was OK for us to open our stockings now.
“It’s dark outside,” I pointed out.
“It’s after midnight.”
“It’s not morning. There are stars.”
“That’s sunrise. It’s morning.”
It was not sunrise. He knew it was not sunrise. I knew it was not sunrise.
I don’t remember if we opened our stockings then or not, but I remember the argument. Technically, he was correct, but my stance was in line with the intent of the Christmas stocking.
And I’m pretty sure he was needling me on purpose.
When I was about 8 years old, my dad started renovating our house. This involved tearing down the entire second floor (apart from the bathroom, which held the house’s only shower) and moving the four of us into a living room, a kitchen, and two bedrooms.
The renovation took ten years. That was not intended, of course. But my formative years were spent at a construction site. I blame this both for my inability to organize or neaten anything without help, and my ability to find almost anything in a messy room.
The new master suite was finished first: a sunny bedroom, and a large sitting room/dressing room with a big walk-in closet. (En suite bathrooms either weren’t a thing then, or weren’t practical because of the house’s plumbing.) At that point my brother and I were separated, him moving into the downstairs room my parents used to share. I was bereft again, but I expect he slept better.
But we both quickly learned the big walk-in closet was where they hid our Christmas presents.
I don’t remember if my brother rummaged around the way I did. I never felt guilty for peeking. I’m awful about presents to this day. I don’t peek anymore, at least not on purpose; but I am often very good at figuring out what people are giving me based on things they do or don’t say.
I don’t like surprises, good or bad. I have some idea why, but it may just be an OCD thing.
One year what I wanted most was an electric typewriter. I’d been banging away on a manual for years. I don’t remember when I acquired that typewriter, or even whether it was a gift or a hand-me-down; but I wrote a lot, and I wanted something new and fast. I asked for one explicitly. And when I visited my parents’ stash in the master bedroom, there was a little electric in a box.
Which, on Christmas Day, was unwrapped by my brother, who was writing more papers for school, and would almost certainly benefit from not having to write everything longhand.
I think I hid my disappointment. I’m not sure I ever told any of them. Certainly I never said anything at the time. I’d had it drilled into me from birth: Smile and say thank you, no matter how you feel about the gift. Very useful for grandmas who gift you six pairs of new white cotton underwear every year. Also very useful for families who gave the one thing you asked for to your brother, who didn’t even need it for art, just school.
This may be where I learned to defy my instincts and stop sneaking around looking for presents.
My great aunt, like most of my older relatives, started having small strokes at some point. Mentally she was still sharp, but she had trouble speaking, and more and more often trouble reading. Her fine motor control left her, although that had been suffering for a while, thanks to her arthritis.
She spent her last Christmas with us. My dad had worked with her caregivers for some months, figuring out criteria that would mean it was safe for her to travel. They told him later they believed she was hanging on due to the promise of the trip; apparently that’s not uncommon, or at least it’s a correlation they often see. He picked her up, and although she was minimally vocal, she smiled a lot.
She had smiley eyes. My great aunt was the nice one. Her sister, my dad’s mom, was a nightmare; my great aunt is the reason he is, fundamentally, a decent person.
I brought my fiancé to Christmas dinner (which we always had on Christmas Eve). We were freshly engaged, although we’d been discussing marriage for a while, and I wanted her to meet him. She couldn’t say much, but she smiled, and she watched him while he talked, and she seemed so, so happy for me.
I think she had a small stroke that evening. After dinner her communications dropped to a single word, and even though she seemed to understand what we were saying to her, she couldn’t say anything else. We helped her into bed. I suppose I hoped she was just tired, but in the morning she was worse, and my dad called her doctors.
He took her home. She died not long after; weeks, not months. They told us she was calm and relaxed, and died in her sleep. They told us she’d been happy to travel. How would they know? But I hope they were right.
The last Christmas before my parents moved, I drove my dad to his favorite Christmas tree farm to choose a tree.
He’d shopped at this place for decades. In recent years, since Spouse and I had taken over Christmas Eve dinner, my dad would order food from them for our traditional Christmas Day leftovers, and pick that up with the tree. He’d buy a particular sort of pine, with needles that didn’t drop so much, or something like that. In better times, he’d have The Kid over to help decorate.
This year everything was different. They were selling their home, and moving into assisted living, although we were still telling him the move was temporary. This would be their last Christmas in the home they’d lived in for 36 years. He wanted it as rigidly the same as possible.
He was already having trouble. Numbers in particular were deserting him. But he knew the layout of the place, knew exactly where they kept the trees he wanted, knew where to find pies and cheese and all his odd snacks.
He didn’t know how to count out cash. When the cashier told him the total, he opened his wallet, frowned, and pulled out a random handful of bills. I gently told him what he needed to give. The cashier rolled with it all.
I don’t remember much else about that Christmas. Not long after that I was working with a packing company to sort through a lifetime of papers, books, knick-knacks, and just plain junk. I asked my mother, primarily, what they did and didn’t want to keep; I told them both things would go into storage, and for the most part I kept to that. I wasn’t interested in getting rid of anything they had any emotional attachment to, even if I knew they’d never see it again. In the end we sold enough to more or less pay for the packing and moving. There’s still two off-site storage rooms full of things, most of which I kept because I didn’t want to think about what to do with them.
Last Christmas we all went to a Chinese restaurant. I sat next to my dad and helped him maneuver his food. I don’t remember much about that, either, but it seemed to go all right. I thought it might make a decent new tradition.
The gods do like a good laugh, don’t they?
This year we packed and mailed their gifts as early as we could. Mine arrived; Spouse’s will be late. Which is irrelevant, really; my parents opened mine as soon as they arrived. I got my dad a book on the making of the original STAR WARS; taking us to that movie is a memory he revisits frequently, even now. My brother, who talks to them more often, reports it was a good choice.
I got my mother three mysteries. By the time my brother spoke with them, she had no memory of receiving anything.
When I talked to her, I asked about the bracelet The Kid had sent her, which was in the same box. She didn’t remember getting any such thing, so I asked if she was wearing a bracelet. Sure enough, she was: she’d put it on as soon as she opened it. I gave her the titles of the books, and the colors of the covers; there they were, on the coffee table in front of her. She was so pleased.
I’ll have the same conversation with her today.
In our house, we made Christmas Eve dinner for the three of us. The Kid made a pumpkin pie; I made a lemon drizzle cake. We ate too much, and I remembered why I can’t drink more than a few sips of wine at a time. We watched GROUNDHOG DAY, which is the perfect redemption movie, and then The Kid played some games.
I asked her how we ought to handle her Christmas stocking, since she stays up later than we do. We decided to give it to her this morning, since she sleeps in. There’s at least one thing in there I’m pretty sure she’ll like, but since it’s in a box, she won’t be able to guess what it is by feel.
I sent digital gifts to my brother. We’ve been trying to de-extravagant our adult-to-adult gifts in recent years; with life and stress and everything going on with our folks, it had turned into a gift card exchange, which is fine but had started to feel a bit silly. I gave him a couple of books I think he might like. He gave me a book on black holes–he’s a physicist, and although he maintains that fiction is fiction, I think he likes giving me for-real science to sprinkle throughout my absurd plots.
We have an artificial tree in our house. This is my idea. When I was little, I’d always beg my dad to keep the tree up; one year I’m pretty sure the thing made it to April. And it was a terrible fire hazard, and my mother put her foot down, but I never liked throwing away something so pretty that had made me happy. The plastic used to make our tree likely has a larger carbon footprint than your average tree farm, but we don’t have to worry about fire.
And if we want to leave it up until April, we can.
Whatever or however you celebrate this year, I wish you peace.
I wish all of us peace.