When I was little, we had a couple of Christmas traditions that I still think are pretty swell. We had a tree, my dad would string lights around the front door, and piles of presents would miraculously appear on Christmas morning. My sister and I could select our favorite toy to take along to Mass and we’d drive away to spend time with my mother’s family in Chicago where we could compare notes on that year’s haul with my cousins. There would be a big dinner and I had that one aunt who always nipped a little too much and sang. My mother would say something about the Irish and drinking and we’d come home to play with the toys we’d left under the tree. And there usually was snow. Lots of snow.
But I moved away from my family when I was still in graduate school and I had to establish my own Christmas priorities pretty early on. I wasn’t always able to go home and I wasn’t always interested in going home. I loved my family and I think they loved me, but sometimes I would spend Christmas someplace else. For starters, that meant picking my own time to go to Mass. I could be daring and go to Midnight Mass or I could be retro and wait for High Mass in the morning. This meant I was also free to decide when “Christmas Dinner” was and where. My being able to make all of these decisions myself made me dizzy with glee.
Early on, I would sing Midnight Mass in the church choir. That had a wonderful impact on my holiday because I could share the music, the exhaustion of trying to get into gear at that hour, and the difficulty trying to find cabs to get home from churches in so-so neighborhoods where you didn’t want to be waiting on a subway platform at 2:00 a.m. That meant dinner could be on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, or both for that matter, and it was fun. Sometimes we’d have a nice traditional dinner and then go out for Chinese on Christmas Day, sipping free white wine and dipping dumplings while we watched the snow fall outside the window of the restaurant.
When I had children, we became obligated to go to their dad’s family and the decisions started to withdraw slowly from my hands and appear in theirs. Since they held a very nice event every year, it was never a burden just to go along. I still sang, but dinner was “up in the country,” as New Yorkers say, meaning anything more than 5 miles out of the city.
And then my children and I left home to make our own way in our own apartment and all those great bits and pieces of the holiday came flooding back to me. Sing, or not sing? Most times, I sang. Dinner before or after? We picked Chinese. Tree or no tree was a difficult one at first, because I felt that I might be betraying some requisite tradition if I decided not to have one. Trees can run over $100 in New York, so there were more than a few Christmases when I just couldn’t afford it and still have money to buy presents.
We started to downsize the holiday altogether and I replaced the big green fresh cut tree with a table sized one. That’s how my favorite new tradition began. Since that first tree was roughly the height of my youngest daughter, she believed I had selected it for that reason. So, every tree since, in the years when we weren’t traveling and we bought trees, the tree has been her height. She’s about 5’ 4” now, but we’re traveling this Christmas and probably won’t have a tree this year, but if we do, I will take her with me to determine its size.
My mother had a beautiful ceramic Nativity set that had a great little baby Jesus, and the expected animals and bit players and I loved it. Dollhouses were my constant toys as a kid, so arranging and rearranging the pieces to create just the right ensemble scene was my favorite part of the whole event.
Which brings me to my new Nativity set from Spain, the one in my kitchen. My older daughter brought me a Nativity set from Spain last year, so I have the key personnel now and I have been adding little “guys,” as I call them, from each of my trips. I added a tiny Tango couple from my trip to Argentina, a chubby little bull fighter, some crazy-eyed Flamenco dancers from my trips to Spain, and a little black rooster from Portugal. Just like the collection of antique family tree ornaments my mother had for our trees, I can add little “guys” to this set every time I come back from a trip and then next year’s holiday will reflect my travels. It doesn’t take up too much room, it doesn’t cost anything much, and it doesn’t make me worry about that drying tree if we travel and aren’t around much over Christmas.
And it fits on top of the microwave which is where it is sitting right now.
Crossposted on Open Salon