Christmas Past

With all the planning and preparation that goes into any holiday, this year I feel completely okay with limited festivities and allowing fun to emerge spontaneously – or not. Taking a day of peace and relaxation sounds like Enough after this year full of conflict and challenges.

Looking back, I recall my mother appearing nearly hysterical while she worked toward holiday bliss. A few months after my 6th birthday and a few days after Thanksgiving, before the gigantic turkey carcass had been picked clean, mom appeared so frazzled that I sat down with her. We discussed logistics and I volunteered to take over all the decorating and gift planning, including preparation of detailed shopping lists and wrapping everything for her. She readily handed over the gifting and decoration-related duties to me in order to focus on keeping her sanity and establishing the schedule for Christmas Eve and Christmas dinner. She’d also decide when we’d go to church, when and to whom we’d distribute the tamales on Christmas Eve so I could wrap and properly label them, and when we’d open presents.

With so much handed off to a 6-year-old, you might think our Christmases bereft of jolliness. Not true! Even at that tender age, I stayed organized, conducted stealth interrogations to determine age-appropriate and longed-for gifts, made sure gifts from Santa had their own special wrapping paper and tags, notified neighbors and extended family members which types of toys, clothing, and homemade candies each of us preferred, and maintained confidentiality.

In spite of near-military precision in the planning and execution of holiday activities, over time some shuffling of duties occurred. Mom didn’t care much for any work in the kitchen, but since I loved time there, I took over the gelatin salad prep as well as making fudge, cookies, and cakes the following year, leaving mom to set the menu. Later I helped with the Christmas cards, helped more with preparation of Christmas dinner, and, after my brothers lost interest in Santa, continued wrapping and suggesting the gifts in often fruitless attempts to keep the value of the items somewhat equitable. Though we all became quite vocal about what we wanted, mom felt my selections for myself inappropriate, so books and leather-working kits were replaced with dolls, pink mittens, and pretend-nail-polish. For decades, I kept telling her what I wanted. And she ignored me.

Back in the day, we tried to appear thankful for everything we received. With so much excitement and rule-breakers among us, I didn’t dare set out the presents from Santa until midnight, so I would bake or decorate baked goods after dinner Christmas Eve and watch an old Christmas movie on television. “White Christmas” or “Miracle on 34th Street” would play as I finished up, nibbled broken cookies, double-checked details, and experimented with different flavors of fudge. In the early hours of the Christmas morning, I’d crawl into bed. The same scenario played out each year until I married and moved out.

While every year brings challenges, and this pandemic-dominated year perhaps brings more than most of us have encountered in our lifetimes, many reasons for gratitude have survived. Of all the Christmases from my childhood, I remember three Christmases Past very well.

The worst Christmas day, when I felt myself nearly-grown at age 15, my grandmother, Isabel, was in the hospital. She had been ill – cancer, then a stroke — but I always believed she would come home. The rest of us had just returned from church, a little giddy from celebrating the birth of baby Jesus and a bit enthused knowing gifts awaited our greedy hands. We were putting away our coats when the phone started to ring. Mom answered, said thank you to the caller, turned to us and calmly said, “Your grandmother died this morning.”

At that, I felt like a child again. My grandmother and I had shared a bedroom for 6 years, and though I often longed for privacy, I couldn’t count the number of times she had covered for us kids, putting away bicycles or toys so mom wouldn’t be angry with us, appreciating it when I brushed or tried to style her thick silver hair, letting me blather about cute boys or mean girls without interrupting. We had started planning her 70th birthday party. I remember wondering if anyone else would miss her quiet presence.

Dad decided we should eat breakfast out that Christmas, for the first and last time ever. He put off opening the gifts until after he and mom notified a few people, returned from the hospital, and “made arrangements.”

After that type of Christmas, worst-case-scenarios no longer involved missing ingredients, cleaning up pine needles, removing spilled eggnog from the carpet, repairing shorted-out or failed tree lights, making sure drunken guests got home. In fact, since then I have survived with calm resolve through ice storms, burnt turkeys, late arrivals, lost utility service, broken pipes, celebrating when I didn’t receive a single present, and holidays when I spent hours trying to repair toys that came out of the box broken. I learned from each of those experiences, but losing someone close to me on that day permanently adjusted my perspective and rewrote my definition of a “disaster.”

The other two stand-out Christmases from my childhood I cling to with great fondness. To be clear, both of these holidays departed completely from what had been carefully planned.

The year I turned 7, one of my dad’s dear friends, a WWII buddy, showed up at our front door around 11 o’clock Christmas Eve. A pilot, he had a small plane and was en-route to a family Christmas when fog grounded him, so he landed at our local airport and took a cab to our house to see if any lights were on. We had taken a nap that afternoon in preparation for midnight service at church. Dressed and ready in our Christmas finery, we stood near the front door when he knocked. Instead of attending High Mass, we stayed home, put on our jammies, popped popcorn in the fireplace, swilled hot cocoa (children) and spiked eggnog (adults), opened one present each, and jabbered for hours until we fell asleep. Not long after we fell into bed, we all enjoyed a breakfast of tamales, eggs, breakfast potatoes, and linguiça (Portuguese sausage). After eating, we drove Cline to the airport so he could continue on to his brother’s house. Before he departed, though, he gave me a ride in his Cessna so I could see the valley from a hawk’s perspective. That was one of the best gifts ever: a different way of seeing the world around me. Even back on the ground, I could imagine how small it all looked from the sky.

The second special holiday happened during my teens. A close family friend who worked in Yosemite National Park called dad to help with some vehicular emergency. We dropped everything, dad grabbed a bunch of parts and tools from his shop, and we headed out, finding the park under a couple feet of fresh powdery snow. While dad worked with his friend, mom drank with his friend’s wife, my brothers built a snowman with the park ranger’s son, and I got to ride around the park in the rumple seat of an antique car with his friend’s eldest and some of her pals.  For once, my little cow-town impressed the small group of teens who lived high in the mountains. They demanded details of the types of opportunities available in a town big enough to have its own radio station. We had 3 department stores, several hardware shops, multiple gas stations, a Dairy Queen, several drive-in restaurants, and both a Spanish-language and an all-English movie theater. How those kids envied me. Me! The person who skipped school to ride the bus to a real city (San Francisco). Wow. What a different holiday. I can still recall the details, the cold air, the snow, rare glimpses of deer, sitting outdoors with this small gaggle of teens, surrounded by breathtaking beauty and relative silence, and thinking this world is so amazing.

We drove home that evening and had our Christmas dinner the following day, but nobody complained. Not one word. I don’t think any of us remembered what gifts we received, aside from the surprise gift of the nearly empty national park in its glorious robe of winter white.

Whether things go wonderfully according to plan or fall into another dimension you didn’t expect, may your plans go well-enough, may your work be recognized and rewarded, and may you be blessed with many happy surprises this season.

As always, may you be happy, healthy, safe, and strong.

Last words: Please remember that neither my opinions, my experiences, nor resources I mention are meant as cures or treatment. If you’re in a moment in your life when most efforts feel huge, consider finding a mental health professional to support you.[i]  If you’re considering ending your life or if you are in crisis, please reach out to emergency services (9-1-1) or a crisis hotline.[ii] You deserve support and to know someone has your back.

Copyright D.R. deLuis 2020


[i] Most areas in the U.S. offer a “2-1-1” service that can provide information about local resources. In addition, one website (there are many) with info about finding an affordable therapist is Open Counseling at www.opencounseling.com .

[ii] National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: call 1-800-273-8255 or visit the website to text/chat at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/. To reach the Crisis Text Line in the US and Canada text “HOME” to 741741; in the UK text 85258; in Ireland text 2050808.

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