Enjoying a Quiet Christmas

Photo of of small, thin, Christmas tree with few decorations and candles. Underneath are woolen socks, old wood skis, and a wooden toy top.
Not quite the gifts or decorations of my childhood, but the tree looks familiar.

My childhood Christmases were great. We’d cut down a spindly wild tree from woods close to town, probably illegally, hang a modest collection of decorations while listening to a Julie Andrews Christmas album, and there were lots of presents. Santa would bring a stocking and hang it on my doorknob, and I could help myself to the contents as soon as I woke up. I was often up early, but the stocking kept me entertained until my parents finally awoke and we could open other gifts.

At least one year, I managed to remain awake until my mum delivered the Christmas stocking late in the evening. That may have been the same year I decided Christmas would come sooner if I went to bed immediately after dinner, a plan which failed as I could not fall asleep. I was not surprised my mum did the work. I can’t recall ever believing in Santa, but I played along for years to avoid disappointing my parents.

Christmas Day was considerably less stressful than birthday parties. There were no invitations and crowds of classmates, the festivities were spread out over more time, and I had no jealously of the gifts my younger brother had received the week before (at least, not that I remember). It was, of course, completely unfair for my younger brother’s birthday to be a week before mine. Neither he nor my mother have ever apologized for this, but I’ve matured enough to not hold it against them.

I disliked the obligatory trip to church for the Christmas Day service. It meant time away from new toys and books, but since first dad was a church organist, we had to go. His role with the church may have been one reason why I didn’t pay attention to the religious aspect of the holiday, or religion in general. Church was a place where dad worked, and where once a month there was a fun potluck buffet lunch.

The other good thing about my childhood Christmases was the apparent lack of fighting between my parents that I was so aware of at other times of the year, particularly the summers. I don’t know if there was less opportunity for first dad to sleep around over Christmas, he was more discreet about it, or mum didn’t raise it. And mum may have different recollections of these Christmases. I expect she’ll let me know after reading this.

When I moved out on my own, I also moved cross-country. I started the habit of spending quiet Christmases alone. For jobs with irregular hours, an employee willing to work all through Christmas and New Year’s was always appreciated, sometimes with overtime pay. Many employees wanted to spend time with their families. I spent two Christmas Days driving the 401 between Toronto and London, which I used in this story. Was I secretly expressing loneliness, or trying to imagine it? That’s for my therapist to figure out.

Eventually I married and had children, as many people do. It was back to family Christmas celebrations, but the trees had changed. Now they came from lots, were carefully shaped, and so dense you couldn’t actually hang any ornaments. Whereas the old and wild trees let all the lights and ornaments dangle and be seen from any angle, regardless of placement, new trees demanded more lights and ornaments, and more careful placement of them. These sculptured and demanding trees were a warning.

Within a few years, Christmas became a stress filled nightmare. I was, apparently, a completely incompetent father and husband at the best of times, and more so at Christmas. I purchased the wrong gifts, didn’t spend enough on gifts, used the wrong wrapping paper, and was hopeless at picking trees, among other faults. Finding a tree might take an hour at a tree lot (after finding the best lot), and I’ve never forgotten the year I ruined Christmas by cutting too much off the tree trunk bottom before putting it in the stand.

I understand that parents may want to create perfect memorable Christmases for their children, whatever it takes, but, at the risk of sounding cliché, Christmas is not about the perfect meal, the perfect photo, the perfect (and costly) gift, or the perfect tree. Like the Grinch, I understand “it means a little bit more,” even if, like the Grinch, I’m vague and religiously skeptical on exactly what it means.

I haven’t done the big family Christmas for many years. Remembering the frantic chaos of the season when I was married, I appreciate a quiet Christmas. Thanks to a steady job in recent years, Christmas means two days off with pay. I send cards, buy a few gifts for friends, and socialize a touch more than usual, but the overall observance is casual, low-key, and stress free. Somewhere along the line I listen to A Child’s Christmas in Wales, a tradition my mum thought she had failed to instill because I didn’t appreciate it as a child. It’s a delightfully imperfect look at Christmas.

I still put up lights, because they are pretty and I believe they pay homage to the pagan elements of the modern Christmas. Though not religious myself, I’ve attended many different faith services with friends, and the local pagan/neo-pagan/wiccans’ winter solstice observances seemed the most welcoming. Maybe it was the potluck buffet dinners before the ceremony.

Potlucks, by definition, are a celebration of imperfect sharing, and that’s an easier path to the elusive Christmas, and Christian, spirit than fussing over the perfect presentation of a carefully cultivated tree.

By trc

Freelance writer, freelance editor, web consultant, and film studies scholar.

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