When I think of the Christmas season — which now begins before Halloween — I am reminded of family traditions from my childhood. Thanksgiving was a holiday honored until December 1st, a day ushered in by my mother’s request for what was left of the Sears and J.C. Penney catalogs.
I circled all the dolls, toys and games that I wanted Santa to deliver on Christmas Eve, and I folded down the corners of pages that contained gifts of the year, such as the Barbie Dream House. With pages falling out of the seams and models’ teeth blackened with the ink of a Bic pen, I’d hand over my Wish Book with the gentleness of the child I should have been all year.
The wall calendar (conveniently hung by our rotary telephone) was marked with special occasions throughout the month of December: Firm Christmas party – 7PM…Hair appointment – 11AM…School concert – 6PM. But on the 15th of the month, the date was stamped with not black but red ink: TREE.
That’s right. December 15th was the date reserved for my father’s annual holiday fit. After dinner, he would stomp downstairs to the basement and spend the next 30 minutes unloading the year’s worth of hoarding to uncover the crumpled box containing our 6-foot Christmas tree. With a cigarette dangling from his lower lip, stuck from dehydration, ashes would fall onto the plastic bristles like bits of tinsel. After the red ends were jammed into the red holes, and the blue, green and yellow branches were stuck in their color-coded holes, my mother would take the second shift to help get strings of multi-colored C9 bulbs out of knots and tangles. I would unwrap ornaments to play with at the dining room table, being warned time after time THAT WILL BREAK! and PUT IT DOWN!
So, I’d PUT THAT DOWN and search for the Elf on the Shelf , who was really a member of the “Snap”, “Crackle” and “Pop” Rice Krispies trio. The generic elves of my childhood weren’t used to manipulate behavior like our house elf, Jack-Daniel. This year, Jack-Daniel showed up with a cute little elf-friend named Ginny.
Once the presents were mail-ordered, the tree was anchored to the wall, and the holiday events were attended and scrutinized, my mother moved on to the final stretch of Christmas must-do’s. She would circle the 20th of December and stamp it with the words: PICTURE WITH SANTA.
After an hour of grooming my thick hair into place and securing it with a barrette partially stabbed into my scalp, and then zipping up an itchy velvet dress that would meet the top of my knobby knees, Mother would help me pull up white, patterned socks that would be covered in black patent Mary Janes (that were as slick as the black ice on MacCorkle Avenue). Then, we’d pile into the Mercury station wagon and drive to The Diamond, where we would stand in line for another hour to get one sepia-toned shot with St. Nick.
When it was my turn to sit on the stranger’s lap, I found no joy in the situation. In fact, I began to hate my mother and father for making me take part in such a frightening production, as Santa wore gold aviator glasses and had cuts on his knuckles. The cameraman insisted that I “smile pretty” and to show him “those dimples”, and my father hovered nearby like an assistant, ringing a bell, cheering me on. “Smile, Kat! Heeeeey, Kat! Look here!” Ring-a-ding-ding.
My mother, on her last holiday nerve, huffed in frustration and ordered them to “TAKE THE PICTURE!”. And so they did. And then we left.
This weekend, I arranged a time for Maryn to have her picture taken with Greenbrier Santa, something I thought she’d enjoy since this is her most favorite time of the season. Ava, much more wise this year (to my sadness), stood by to watch children cry, scream for their mothers, and climb over Santa’s enormous chair. As I patiently waited in line for our turn, I felt someone tap me on the back. It was Ava.
“Maryn’s gone,” she said.
“What do you mean she’s gone? Where is she?” I asked.
“She ran off. She’s afraid of Santa.”
“But why?” I asked, scanning the hotel lobby for my child (wearing a dress with a wintry blue argyle pattern…and white socks).
“She says he looks mean.”
Apparently, my 6-year old burst through a pack of American BoyChoir members like Tavon Austin. My 82-year old aunt managed to keep up with Maryn, protecting her on a couch two parlor rooms away. I wasn’t very pleased. Like mother, like daughter.
Auntie stopped me before I could begin a chorus of “what’s gotten into you” rants.
“Now just a second,” she began, holding up a wrinkled, arthritic hand. ”When you were a baby, I remember how upset you got when your mama and daddy made you sit on Santa’s lap. Leave the little thing alone.”
Word of advice? Never mess with a 90-pound lady carrying an antique cane.
And then we left.
Now, what’s the moral of the story? Honoring holiday traditions can be quite nice, but it can land well-meaning parents on the naughty list.