How to Make a Holiday, Part 2

It’s almost like we’re having two Christmases.

One of them is ours, and one of them is the one we’re trying to create for the people we love.

The thing is that I think these could be the same Christmas — or at least the same kind of Christmas — but the temporal nature of the holiday makes it difficult.

I mean temporal in both senses of the word, of course; the one that means “bound by time” and the one that means “worldly and secular.” It seems obvious, at least on the surface, that these two definitions work in tandem to give us the kind of holiday that no one really wants.

The kind that’s performance-based, not process-based.

The kind that I am frantically trying to make happen for my parents and nephew and extended family, not the kind that L and I are quietly making on our own.

There is a certain amount of holiday-related stuff that has to be made to happen if you want it to be part of your celebration. Trees must be retrieved, either from the tree farm or the internet or the box in the basement. Gifts must be purchased. Food must be purchased, or made, or (in most cases) both. Matching pajamas must be ordered online, in the correct sizes, ideally in time to take advantage of Black Friday discounts.

But what you’re really trying to make happen is the feeling — and I’m not even sure what the feeling is, except maybe I love all of this, or I love our home, I love our life, I love you, which is what L and I have been saying to each other every evening as we sit in front of our tree and our stockings and our fire.

Last Sunday I told L that I’d already had everything I ever hoped to get out of Christmas, just in that past weekend, with him and me together. We were sitting down to one of our favorite meals, with a very good bottle of wine (by which I mean a $12 bottle of wine, don’t get any ideas) and for dessert we had peppermint bark and English toffee that I’d stirred together earlier that afternoon. We’d made origami stars and worn flannel pajamas. We’d gotten in the car to drive around town to see the lights.

We’d even given each other small gifts, since we had an Advent calendar that we’d been filling with love notes and music suggestions and ideas for holiday activities and, in this particular weekend’s case, small gifts.

“This is everything I ever wanted Christmas to be,” I said. “What are we supposed to do for the rest of December?”

L smiled. “More of this.”

The thing about the kind of holiday that L and I are currently having, the kind that is based primarily on “doing stuff we already like to do, but Christmas-themed,” is that you can have it every day — and you might not even get tired of it.

I mean, if it all comes down to “making food you enjoy, wearing attractive and comfortable clothes, enjoying wine and conversation and doing something creative, all while giving the people you love regular reminders that you love them,” then the only difference between Christmas and real life is the former’s tendency towards excess.

Not just “making food you enjoy,” but stuffing yourself with it.

Not just “wearing attractive clothes,” but stuffing yourself into velvet and sparkles.

Not just “giving someone a reminder that you love them,” but spending a pile of money on stuff they may or may not actually want.

And — probably the most important part — not doing any of this together. Dictating, to your partner or family or extended family, what Christmas Should Be — and then performing it as if it were a school pageant.

Which brings me to the Other Christmas.

“This is our first Christmas with my family,” I told L, as we unloaded the dishwasher together. “I don’t want to mess it up.”

Messing it up, in this case, could mean any or all of the following:

  • Not sending gifts on time (which is already going to happen, since two of the items we ordered from small, indie retailers are experiencing shipping delays)
  • Not wrapping the gifts very well (in my family, I am known for being The One Who Is Bad At Wrapping Presents)
  • Not getting holiday cards out quickly enough, even though I’ve already told my extended family not to expect any cards until New Year’s
  • Not being on time for the Family Present Unwrapping Zoom Call
  • Not being able to get the tech to work for the Family Present Unwrapping Zoom Call
  • Wearing the wrong thing during the Family Present Unwrapping Zoom Call
  • Saying the wrong thing during the Family Present Unwrapping Zoom Call
  • And so on.

It’s worth noting that these anxieties (like most anxieties?) are entirely self-inflicted; my family has already told me that it doesn’t matter if the presents don’t arrive on time, for example, because their presents probably aren’t going to arrive on time either. That said, I still want to live up to whatever it means to be a daughter and an aunt and a sister and a niece during Christmas. There’s a way to do this that isn’t a performance (and one of my hopes for this year is to figure that part out, with L’s help), but since so much of Christmas tends towards the performative — the deliberate appreciation of gifts at the beginning of the day and food at the end of it, for example — it’s hard not to worry that you’re going to fail to deliver.

There would be much less concern about failure if we were not working towards a targeted Big Day with its Big Experiences that will be remembered and discussed for years to come. If we could do the family Christmas the way we’re doing our at-home Christmas — as a series of small joys passed between people who are still learning what brings each other joy — that would be something else entirely.

A different kind of memory, though it might require a different kind of discussion in advance.

You know how every new couple is all “I wish we could make our own Christmas traditions,” except there’s always someone else’s calendar of traditions that is already taking up all the time and space and energy?

This year there is no calendar. L and I are making our own holiday, one that feels literally holy, by asking each other what we want to do, doing it together and letting it take take the time it takes.

The minute we realized that “decorating the tree” was starting to feel like a chore, for example, we switched over to “hey, let’s just put one or two ornaments up every night.” (We’re also telling each other the story of every ornament as we put it up, which is turning out to be an excellent way of learning new things about each other and about our respective families.)

L and I also decided, pretty early on, that we wanted to spread the presents out over the entire month, just like we spread our favorite Thanksgiving dishes out over the entire four-day weekend. Not only does that give us more time to enjoy each individual gift, but it also gives us the option to refine and iterate as we see how each gift is received.

And I know that the whole “let things take the time they take” and “figure out what you want to do together” business might not work as well when you’ve got more people in your home, with needs and wants that are more likely to compete with each other and with the limited amount of time we actually have available to us, as much as L and I are trying to pretend otherwise.

If you only have two hours to get the tree up between all of the other stuff (holiday or otherwise) that usually fills up the calendar, you force that tree into position even if you spent the entire year wishing that this task could feel more like something you were sharing with your family and less like something that you had to cajole and/or rush everyone through.

So yeah, I get why the kind of Christmas L and I are discovering together, tucked away from time and from the world, might not work as well in other types of situations. But it seems like it could, if people who love each other could agree to care enough to figure out how.

Because that’s the only kind of holiday I ever want, from now on.

There’s one more thing I need to tell you.

As soon as L and I started making Christmas happen — both the holiday we are creating for ourselves and the parts of the holiday we are creating for other people — we stopped making anything else.

I’m not writing in the evenings. L isn’t studying jazz. We’ve given up on Godel, Escher, Bach. We’re still practicing the piano, and we’re still playing chess, but all of our other various creative activities have been displaced by the activity of creating Christmas.

Even our delicate, beautiful, private Christmas takes effort — if you want to know how to delight someone, you have to pay very close attention — and even something as simple as sitting in front of the fireplace and saying “I love this house, I love my life, I love you” takes time.

This is the choice we are making, because this is the time of year to make it.

This is also, perhaps, why one cannot actually have Christmas all year long.

Why it needs to be temporal, in at least one sense of the word — because the other thing people often realize, at the end of holiday stories, is that there is more to life than this.

“It’s Christmas Day! I didn’t miss it!” they say, by which they mean I got the feeling I was supposed to have, the one that comes when you give and receive joy.

And then they start asking themselves what they’re going to do next.

How to Make a Holiday

I don’t know how everyone else came up with it, but when I turned to L and said “wait, we could spread our favorite Thanksgiving foods out over the entire weekend,” I honestly thought it was an original idea.

It was still a very good idea, in the same way that shifting our lives from a clock-based schedule to “things take the time they take” was a very good idea. Instead of trying to fit fourteen side dishes into a single meal, we had… well, I guess we had four. Three, if pie counts as a dessert and not a side.

So it was turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans and bacon, fresh cranberry relish, and pumpkin pie on Thursday; leftovers on Friday; beet salad with oranges and walnuts and goat cheese on Saturday; and more leftovers plus fresh cornbread dressing (using Kamala Harris’s recipe) and chess pie on Sunday.

This also gave us the opportunity to improve our cooking skills as we went along; the chess pie was significantly better than the pumpkin pie because our first pie crust came out soggy and we made it our goal to make our second pie crust as perfect as possible (turns out you’re supposed to chill the crust before you put the pie filling in, who knew).

There are two points to this story.

The first is that I hope this tradition of “spreading out the Thanksgiving foods over the entire weekend” sticks, for as many people as possible who enjoyed it as much as we did. I understand why it might not; the reason you have fourteen side dishes in a single meal is because some of the people you want around your table at Thanksgiving can only be there for a single meal — and because everyone wants to cook and/or eat their favorite Thanksgiving food, so you might as well make ’em all.

But if you also divided your Thanksgiving meal into multiple days, did you also notice how pleasant it was? To be able to focus your attention on a few treats and experience them thoroughly? To leave the meal feeling satisfied, not stuffed? To cook a bit here, and a bit there, and make the second pie better than the first one?

The second point — rather like the second pie — is that our first Thanksgiving together helped us figure out how to spend our first Christmas together, and BOY HOWDY was I worried about Christmas.

I actually wrote a song about it, which I sang to L as we were cleaning up the dishes after dinner on Friday. (It has a tune, but it’s enough like “When You Come Home to Me” from The Last Five Years that you can go ahead and substitute that one.)

When I have someone of my own

I won’t have to sit in the most uncomfortable chair

We’ll be able to sit together on the couch because we’re new

And my sister will have to sit on the chair (because somebody will have to…)

When I have someone of my own

They’ll send us a box of Christmas treats from Harry & David

Because only couples get boxes of treats from Harry & David

And single women have to wait for someone to share (and they never do…)

“Ah, the fifth wheel song,” L said. “I’ve sung that song before.”

“No, wait,” I said. “There’s a bridge. It’s the important part.”

And he will buy me

Everything that’s shiny

All the gifts that no one ever gives a daughter or a sister or an aunt…

I have been, if you’ll forgive me mentioning it, a little demanding about Christmas. It is not only our first Christmas together, but also my first Christmas with a partner and the first Christmas I’ve ever spent in a for-real house, not a group house with roommates or a studio apartment with no kitchen where you have to wash your dishes in a bus tub and dump the dirty dishwater in the toilet. (True story.)

So L started our Christmas planning by saying “You know I’m not really into presents or stuff, I’d rather have us spend Christmas Day having a good time than opening a bunch of gifts, and most people our age buy ourselves everything we want anyway,” and I countered with “Look, you can do as you like, but there will be a box of pears wrapped in gold foil and a tin of peppermint bark and some very expensive chocolate truffles, and you already know that there is exactly one gift I want you to buy for me which is a snow globe that is also a music box and inside the snow globe there are little houses that light up and a train that moves through a tunnel, and that’s fine, I’ll buy everything else I want myself.”

And the next day I said “I’ve started buying all the stuff I want for Christmas, I will surprise you with it soon,” and the day after that I started crying because we were doing it all wrong.

L had said that I should go ahead and buy myself everything that delighted me, but I wasn’t delighted. Turns out — and this is the plot of basically every Christmas movie ever, so spoiler alert — getting everything you’d ever wanted isn’t any good if you don’t have someone to share it with.

Especially if the person you want to share it with lives in your house.

Of course, I was also crying because I assumed that I’d have to send all of the stuff back. The matching holiday pajamas, the Advent calendar shaped like an Alpine village (that lights up), the commemorative Mary Poppins Living Magic Sketchbook Ornament (that is also a music box). Our Christmas would be devoid of kitsch and glitter, with nothing to do but play chess and listen to music, like we already do all the time — and sure, eventually we’d eat a ham or something, even though I told L that the whole concept of a once-a-year holiday meal was just as much “stuff” as anything they sold on The Bradford Exchange (and he agreed with me).

And then the miracle happened.

The stuff started showing up, right about the time we began turning Thanksgiving from a single-day stress-fest into a four-day, “things take as long as they take” celebration.

The boxes I had bought were instantly less interesting than the pies we were making together or the cornbread dressing we were baking together or the freshly-killed Christmas tree we were driving out to the tree farm for and then dragging into the house together. It was clear, to both of us, what the true meaning of our two-month-long winter holiday season would be: Making things together. Like we already do, all the time.

But the stuff was not worthless. We put on glittery holiday hats when we did the big family Zoom on Saturday, and we kept the hats on when we started decorating the house on Sunday, and when the matching jammies arrived we both knew that it would be more fun to do whatever it was we would end up doing while wearing matching holiday pajamas.

One of those things, as it turns out, will be “making origami ornaments.” L suggested it, and it was instantly more interesting than the Disney Magic Sketchbook Living Movie Characters Also a Music Box thing I had purchased, but would we have come up with the idea of making our own ornaments if I hadn’t said “hey, ornaments are important?”

(Maybe we would have. But let me have my miracle.)

And then — and here it is, the surprise third point of this whole story, the way The Gift of the Magi could have gone if O. Henry hadn’t been a candy bar — after we had this lovely Thanksgiving weekend in which we made food and brought in a tree and visited with family and created a holiday together while occasionally wearing themed clothing, I came down the stairs the next morning and said “Hey, I don’t want to buy the giant tower of treats from Harry & David anymore. What if we learned how to make our own peppermint bark instead?”

And later that afternoon L said “Hey, I think I’ve got something that you’d really like. It’s this old box of holiday decorations that I’ve never done anything with because I never had a home I wanted to decorate before. Do you want to see what’s inside?”

There were scented candles and ceramic snowpeople and so many reflective surfaces — but the first thing I pulled out of the box was your typical Norman Rockwell-esque Santa sculpture, Saint Nicholas and His Sleigh, by which I mean it was delightful. Especially when I turned it over and wound up the key at the bottom.

“Did you know it was also a music box?”

“Wow,” L said. “I never thought to look.”

An Excerpt From The Biographies of Ordinary People: Meredith on Christmas Eve

The Biographies of Ordinary People is a Millennial-era Little Women that follows three sisters from 1989 to 2016. This chapter takes place in December 1989, when oldest sister Meredith Gruber is eight years old. It is also one of my very favorites, in the whole book. 

If you aren’t familiar with the story: Meredith, Natalie, and Jackie are the three Gruber sisters. Alex (short for Alexandra) is Meredith’s best friend. The rest should make sense on its own.

The thing Meredith liked best about the Methodist church was that nobody asked her to consider her sins. In Portland they had gone to church with Grandma and Grandpa Gruber sometimes, and it was a big church with ceilings so high that Meredith couldn’t even read the words at the tops of the stained glass windows, and when you turned around to walk out of the sanctuary you had to face an enormous statue of Jesus nailed to the cross, with red painted blood dripping from the hole in His side. Meredith tried to look everywhere else but at that Jesus. She focused her eyes on Grandma Gruber’s purse instead.

But before that you had to kneel down and think about your sins, and Meredith felt like she was in the wrong place because she didn’t have any sins. She didn’t steal, she didn’t lie, she didn’t cheat, and she didn’t try to hurt people. What was she supposed to think about, in the silence? She thought about her parents and her grandparents, and she was pretty sure they didn’t have any sins either. Why were they all doing this?

The Methodist church never used the word “sin.” When they said the Lord’s Prayer, they used “trespasses,” which Meredith liked because you could hear the “s” sound come out of a hundred mouths at once, and there were plenty of “s” sounds in “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It was her favorite part of the prayer.

Meredith had asked Dad what “trespass” meant, because she knew about “No Trespassing” signs from books but thought they probably weren’t talking about that.

“It’s sort of the same thing,” Dad had told her. “Think about it like going into someone’s space when you aren’t supposed to. Like when you’re playing, and you want a Barbie that Natalie’s playing with, and you get her to give it to you even though you know she doesn’t want to.”

Meredith had definitely done that. She hadn’t even realized it was bad. So she also liked this church because it helped her become a better person.

Now she stood next to Natalie and Jackie and Alex, wearing red velvet to match her sisters and shaking hands with the grownups in front of them and behind them. Some of them said “Peace be with you!” and some of them said “Merry Christmas,” and one of them asked if they were excited for Santa, and Jackie said “Yes!” so loudly that everyone laughed, which Meredith thought was a little unfair. Jackie didn’t know yet about Santa, and it was mean of them to laugh at how excited she was.

Meredith had figured out Santa when she checked out Little Town on the Prairie from the library. She asked Alex if she knew, and Alex talked about footprints in the snow and half-eaten carrots next to the stockings, and Meredith said that at her house, Santa didn’t leave any footprints or carrots. They put it together like the Boxcar Children solving a mystery, and then Meredith decided not to tell Natalie or Jackie. Laura Ingalls hadn’t told Grace, after all.

After everyone shook hands and sat down, it was time for Special Music. Meredith and her sisters walked to the piano in their matching dresses, Natalie carrying the music book under her arm with a paper clip in the right spot. The two of them made sure the book wouldn’t tip forward, and then they carefully lined up their hands on either side of Middle C, while Jackie took her place next to Natalie and stood very still like Mom had taught her.

Meredith counted, trying to do it so no one else could hear. “One, two, three, four—”

“JOY to the WORLD, the Lord is come!” Jackie sang out as Natalie and Meredith shared the melody between their fingers. Meredith also had a few chords to play with her left hand, and she concentrated on what Mom had told her: be the accompaniment, not the solo. She kept her fingers curved and her wrists loose. It all made a difference, even though it was hard for Meredith to hear what the difference was.

After they finished, the congregation clapped, which embarrassed Meredith because she knew you weren’t supposed to clap at church. She didn’t know whether they should bow, but they hadn’t practiced bowing, so she didn’t. The three Gruber sisters stayed very still, like Mom had taught them, until the applause stopped.

Then Jackie and Natalie went back to their seats and Alex sat down on the bench next to Meredith. They moved the piano book pages forward to the next paper clip, and played “What Child Is This?” They had picked this Christmas carol because it sounded like castles and princesses. Dad had explained that it was also a folk song from England, and pulled out a record called “Fantasia on Greensleeves,” which Meredith wished he would play again, as soon as it was over. She wanted to write a story about a girl who listened to that record and closed her eyes, and when she opened them again she was in a magical forest. The instruments made sounds like trees and rain on leaves and waterfalls.

The other reason Meredith liked “What Child Is This” was because it was both happy and sad, so it really felt like Christmas. It was easy to think of all her trespasses tonight, and all of the ways she had been trespassed against. Even though she didn’t believe in Santa anymore, she still wanted to be good. She wanted to get everything right.

Then it was time for the candles. There had been candles in wicker baskets when they walked into church, and now everyone took their candles and one of the ushers turned off all the lights and the pastor lit her candle from the big Peace Candle in the center of the room. Then she walked to the first row, and the candlelight began spreading throughout the sanctuary.

Everyone sang “Silent Night” with no piano or organ, just voices. It was all voices and the steadily growing light, and Meredith half singing as they began a second verse and she realized she didn’t know any of the words. It felt like forgiveness, like it was okay that Meredith had read an extra chapter of her library book instead of cleaning up the playroom and Mom had come up the stairs and said “Meredith! What did I ask you to do?” or like it was okay that she had sat on Santa’s lap and pretended he was real. It was okay that they had called Grandma and Grandpa Gruber that afternoon, and Meredith had nothing to say except she was fine and school was fine, and she felt like she should have said more because it was a special day and she wanted them to know she loved them. It was okay that the congregation had clapped at their music, even though it had felt so embarrassing to sit quietly while it was going on.

Christ was born. Meredith looked at Alex in the candlelight, and Alex made a face, and Meredith tried not to laugh—and then she made a face back and Alex did laugh, but covered it up with her hand. Meredith looked the other way and saw Natalie leaning into Mom’s side, and Mom’s hand reached around to hug Natalie’s red velvet shoulder. Dad was helping Jackie hold her candle, as Jackie kept singing the one verse of “Silent Night” that she knew, over and over. When all the verses were finished, the ushers turned on the lights and the pastor called out “Merry Christmas!” and it was.

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash.