Over my 35 years of life, Christmas Eve has transformed.
As a kid, it was a time of anticipation, excitement and wonder. A born lover of books (thanks to my mom who was always reading to me), my imagination came alive, as I lay in my bed straining to hear footsteps on the roof or a faint jingle of a bell.
My father used to love to tell me about how when we were really little, he did everything while we slept on Christmas Eve, even put up the tree. As we got older, it became our job to put together our fake Christmas tree. I can still picture the huge box with color-coded wire branches. But, my Dad was never far away. Lying on the couch, barking orders and breaking up arguments between my brothers and me.
He cherished the holiday. He would draw it out as much as possible. He would lay in bed forever with the door closed while we sat on the other side begging him to get up, so we could open the presents. In fact, it was the only day of the year he ever stayed in bed past 7am. We would be going crazy by the time he got up, then he would announce some crazy rule like we could only open one present an hour. His own presents, that we had so carefully chose, he would pile around him on the couch refusing to open them until the last possible minute. Even breakfast had to happen right in the middle of opening presents, much to our frustration. I was the pancake maker and my Dad of course was the taste-tester who had to eat nearly the whole first batch. Of course this was to ensure that they were not poisoned and safe for us all to eat.
But our holidays were never religious.
I grew up with a father from a religious Baptist family and a mother from a non-religious Jewish family. My Dad was the only one of his siblings that was not religious, and I never found out why. I guess my parents decided that the best solution was to just leave the religion topic alone and let us figure it out for ourselves. I didn’t realize how unique that was until I took a religion class in college, and the professor looked at me like I was some strange exotic bird. “What do you mean you were raised without religion?!” My parents weren’t rebelling against religion; it was just a non-issue. We had a Christmas tree and lit a menorah and that was that.
When my husband, a Catholic, and I started dating, I was introduced to the Italian Christmas Eve tradition of the 7 fishes. Well, that was great, but I was a vegetarian and had been since the 7th grade. But once we were married, I decided that I wanted to eat all 7 fishes. I wanted to embrace the traditions of his family, as much as I wanted to preserve my own. Again Christmas Eve changed. We opened presents, drank wine, and ate more fish in one night than I had eaten in my whole life!
Then we started having children. We had so many traditions and cultures that it was overwhelming to think about. With our first child I tried so hard. I read up on Jewish heritage and questioned my husband about Catholic beliefs. I bought books to read to him and craft projects to go along with them. We went to a few churches trying to find the right fit, but I got too nervous to try a synagogue, because I had only ever been to one for funerals.
But the more we thought about religion and tradition the more complicated it got, so for now we just focus on teaching our children to be kind, appreciative and to care about others. And once again, Christmas Eve became about anticipation, excitement and wonder, only this time those feelings centered around our children. Now it was my turn to buy the gifts and hide them carefully. My turn to read my favorite books to them and watch their eyes fill with wonder. My job wrap those gifts late at night while drinking wine and listening to Christmas carols.
And with a new generation came new traditions with the old. Unlike my parents, I had an elf to remember to move. I had reindeer food to make with them and sprinkle across the lawn at night. I had a blog post to compose, while everyone was snoring.
Christmas Eve has changed over the years, but some things remain the same. My love for traditions new and old has endured. A gift that my parents gave me that never needed to be wrapped.
The last Christmas I spent with my father, he didn’t want to leave my house. It was time for me to put the kids to bed, and my parents and brothers were driving back to NY that night. But my father sat on the couch and refused to budge. It got later and later. I put the kids to bed finally, and I was exhausted. I was nearly 9 months pregnant and had 2 little boys. I was annoyed that he wouldn’t leave until the basketball game on TV was over. My brothers paced in the kitchen with their coats on. My husband glared at me with annoyance. My mom kept sneaking me apologetic glances and saying to my Dad, “Alright Michael, let’s go.”
I didn’t know that less than 2 months later that he would slip on ice in the driveway of our childhood home, the only home we ever lived in. I didn’t know he would hit his head and suffer a subdural hematoma and never recover. I didn’t know it would be the last Christmas for him. But I believe that he did.
People get so caught up in race, religion, tradition, cooking, cleaning, buying, wrapping….but it’s all just on the surface of the memories that we create.
Because tomorrow, at Christmas dinner, my Dad’s absence will be overpowered by his presence. People who give to this world can never really leave it.