I haven't really been able to celebrate Christmas this year. Or last year. Or the year before that. The year before that was my father's last Christmas. He spent it in a hospital bed that had been placed in his living room. It gave me horrid flashbacks to when I was eleven and we all thought he was going to die - he was in a hospital bed in the middle of our living room then, too, after throwing out his back and developing a blood clot in his lung that nearly killed him.
My father was the center of our holiday that year, four years ago. But then, he was the center of that holiday every year. He made our Christmases what they were. And I need to express that, to work through it, somewhere where I think people will understand, because even I don't really understand it yet.
Christmas was my dad's biggest time of the year. He was like a little boy - exuberant and excited and always, always anticipating the holiday.
Dad was the one who brought down the decorations from the attic, arranged for the Christmas parties, cooked the big turkey dinner, wrapped the presents more elaborately than any department store ever could. Dad was the one who had holiday music playing (medieval Christmas music, the Hampton String Quartet's album "What if Mozart Wrote 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas'", the Singers Unlimited Jazz Christmas, Mannheim Steamroller's Christmas albums - the good stuff) starting the day after Thanksgiving, when we traditionally picked out the Christmas tree at the local tree farm, even though it wouldn't come home with us until a week before Christmas. That morning would always end with a pancake breakfast at a mom-and-pop that sadly no longer exists; when they went out of business, we switched to Denny's. That afternoon, Mom would bake Christmas cookies and then us kids would decorate them (badly) with royal icing, while Dad would put together two dozen fruitcakes for eventual gifts, preparing them to be soaked with rum through cheesecloth every day for the next 29 days.
Dad was excited and boisterous and happy about decorations, family visits, going caroling two or three nights before Christmas. He created this amazing wooden Advent calendar that was at least 3x5 feet. It hung over the fireplace every Christmas season. The "days" were wooden curtain rings with round backs on them and eye-hooks on the top, hung on rows of little hooks. The back of each one was painted with a lower-case Old English letter: t, or w, or m, or f. The insides of each one were different. Every day, one of us boys would get to turn over one of the new days and see a miniature scene that my Dad had created out of little wooden figurines. I remember week 3 best - it had a series of penguins with a snowy background, starting out with no snow in the air, then light snow, then heavier snow, then finally a blizzard. Each day, the penguins got a little smaller as the snow heaped up behind them. That calendar was a work of art.
December 6th was always the day we hung up our stockings because it was St. Nicholas' Day. We made a big production out of it. Then, after they were hung, we drew Secret Santas out of the metal Santa candy container.
There was an Advent wreath my Dad made that hung from a hook in the ceiling, with one pink and three purple candles and an incredibly ornate white candle in the center (the Christ candle, natch). Every Sunday during Advent, we'd light an additional candle, with the pink one being lit on the third Sunday of Advent, of course. The Sunday rings on the Advent calendar all had candles, to match the Advent wreath.
Every year after my grandfather died, Dad scheduled our family tree-raising on the day of his death - December 18th - as a way to honor his memory. Those were classic holiday parties. Mom and Dad invited everyone in the neighborhood over, since everyone else they invited were music people from their colleges and church choirs, and we were going to be noisy. We'd go to the tree farm in the morning, have the tree fresh-cut, and bring it home and set it up on the tree stand that my Dad had built - a square table about two feet high, with legs that folded out like a card table, with the tree stand firmly bolted to its top. Up went the tree, with some struggle and colorful language from both my parents (traditional). Once it was stabilized, Dad would test all the white twinkle lights - white ONLY; my dad was a purist about that - and then wrap the tree in them, and put the angel on the top (one my parents had had since their marriage). After that, Dad would be on the floor with my littlest brother, setting up the LGB-scale train set to run around the base of the tree, attaching a pipe-cleaner wreath to the front of the engine, and making sure that there was space for gifts as well. Meantime, my other brother, my mom, and I were emptying packing boxes of ornaments into baskets on the family-room table. The big box of plastic, styrofoam, and other nonbreakable ornaments was placed on the floor near the fireplace for the little kids coming to the party. After those were all set out, Mom and Dad were in the kitchen making huge tureens of French onion soup and split-pea soup with a ham bone in it, for the party that evening, and my brothers and I got our Christmas cookies out of the big freezer in the garage and put them out on plates on the dining-room table (pulled out to accommodate both leaves, and decorated to the nines for Christmas) to thaw. Late in the afternoon, just before people started arriving, Dad would make Wassail in the big glass punch bowl while Mom got the soups into the tureens and the Crock Pot and got them onto the sideboard in the dining room.
The price for coming to our tree-raisings was threefold, and always cheerfully paid by everyone who came to them. First, you had to bring some small dish for the potluck that was in some way related to the season. We always had a groaning board. Second, you had to hang three ornaments on the tree. Everyone always hung more than that. Third, you had to bring your copy of the score of Handel's Messiah, which everyone had, and be ready to sing along when the time came, with my father conducting and my mother playing the piano. The time usually came at about ten p.m. (hence our invitations to the neighbors), and man, did we fill that house with song? We did. "Making a joyful noise" was just what my father did, and he got all the rest of us to make it along with him. Imagine seventy people at a party singing like it was a flash mob, and you'll get the idea of what it was like.
Christmas Eve was when my father arm-wrestled the naked turkey and got it into the oven to slow-roast by one p.m. for dinner the next day at four p.m. The evening was spent at church for Midnight Mass, where my father was the choir director; when we would get home the entire house smelled of roasting turkey, the fireplace doors were open, the stockings were bulging, the presents were all under the tree, and there was a footprint outlined in ash on the hearth. We'd notice that the Baby Jesus figure was in the manger in our gorgeous Nativity set, and he hadn't been there before we left. Our faith in Santa was restored for another year (until I was about thirteen and found out that my mom and dad arranged with the next-door neighbor to come in after we were gone and set it all up). We'd sing Happy Birthday to Jesus, then go to bed until at least seven a.m., where my brothers and I would lie awake for a half hour and then crash until my parents woke us up. We were allowed to open our stocking presents before breakfast, but everything else had to wait until after - and the stocking presents were almost always the same: new toothbrushes, brushes and combs, a bar of chocolate, a big stick of peppermint candy, a small stuffed animal, and a huge apple or orange in the toe of the stocking. Christmas morning was French toast and scrambled eggs with hot apple cider every year. Christmas afternoon, our family descended on the house - my parents' parents, my mother's older brothers, and sometimes my dad's sister flown down from Oregon. That was the stressful part, the family part. That also pretty much ended except for my dad's mom and sister when I was about fourteen.
The Three Kings continued to move from the windowsill, where they'd been placed the same day the Nativity set went up, towards the Nativity set every day from Christmas to Epiphany, January 6th, when they finally arrived. My parents had this gorgeous hand-carved wooden Nativity set from Italy, but they were never able to get the third King, so we had the two human kings (Melchior and Balthazar) and the elephant, who was "King Babar."
January 7th, everything was taken down and put away. The tree went out to the street, the ornaments went back up to the attic, and the holidays were over for another year. While it was a let-down in some ways, we also knew we had the whole year to look forward to the next Christmas season, which was only ten months away.
My mother didn't seem to enjoy Christmas the way my father did. She put up with it, I think. Everything about what she did was a chore, it seemed like. The difference was night and day. She crocheted our stockings; I remember that. She put the mantelpiece decorations up, with boughs of the juniper bushes from in front of our house as a base. She played the piano for the Messiah sing-along. She made the onion soup and the split-pea soup for the tree-raising. But she always got tense and worried when people were coming over; she just didn't enjoy Christmas the way my Dad did. She didn't get along well with her family of origin, and I think she was a little happier after her family just stopped coming over to the house for a number of reasons I won't get into here (except to say that her stress about and with them was totally justified). But for her, Christmas was just a big chore and a source of worry, not happiness.
When I was in my twenties, the local paper interviewed people about what they thought Christmas was. When asked what made Christmas what it was for me, I answered "My father. He's always so gung-ho about everything to do with this holiday. I can't imagine it without him." I'm sure you can understand why.
Well, he's been gone for four years, next month. And I haven't really had Christmas since he died. I haven't been able to bear it. When he died, the Advent calendar went to my middle brother, who's just had a new baby. The Advent wreath and the Nativity set went to my youngest brother, who still has kids at home. I got the soup tureen and the punch bowl. They haven't been used even once since he died.
Part of this is because of money. Most of the decorations my father had are gone, and there's no way I can ever reproduce them. Part of this is because we've moved twice since he died and I'm still not recovered from that.
But most of it is because without my Dad, it just doesn't feel like Christmas. I'm not sure it ever will again. My partner went to his parents' house yesterday for a few hours, but I couldn't go. I couldn't bring myself to celebrate a holiday that's so deeply tied to my father.
I hope you all had a good Christmas. Maybe someday, I will again too.