Out of the eight Christmases I spent in Houston, they all blur into one: Christmas, Houston (1988). It was the year my father rented a video camera to record us wandering sleepy-eyed down the brown-shag carpeted hallway on Christmas morning. We stormed the living room like little elves; me in my long, red and white candy-striped nightgown, Jess in her rosebuds and Jenny in her stocking-footed pajamas. There at the end of the hallway, we found a camera on a tripod looming in the living room, the blinking red light recording our every move and expression.
It wasn’t until years later that we watched the video, when my father eventually (finally) purchased a VCR. Since it was the only tape our family owned (my parents didn’t see the point in purchasing movies when you could just rent them), my sisters and I watched the video countless times, the images of that day embedded into our brains from endless repetition. On the tape’s wide white label, you can find “The Best Christmas Ever” scrawled in a combination of my and Jess’ juvenile handwriting. This title sounded great at the time but it’s one I now find funny: we obviously had no way of knowing how to rate one Christmas from the next. We had hardly experienced enough Christmases at all in order to distinguish a good Christmas from a bad one, much less a Best Christmas from a Worst one. If you watched the tape now it’d be long and shaky, over three hours. Yet still Dad didn’t manage to get everything on camera. Like when Mom tried to make Jenny, our youngest sister who was three at the time, renounce her vice of the pacifier. Mom tried to coax her into giving it to Rudolph’s new baby reindeer. Mom made a big deal out of this idea. She and Jenny concocted a mixture of reindeer food made of birdseed, sunflower seeds and I think popcorn. Jenny was only slightly reluctant and the whole thing was turning out to be a near-Christmas miracle until midnight when Jenny was yelling out “I WANT MY PASSY!” from the confines of her crib. (Mom was no fool, she had a “back-up” hidden in the cupboard.) Needless to say, it was a good effort that did not turn out as my mother would have planned.
The Best Christmas Ever turned out to be the first and only Christmas Dad filmed. But I don’t need to have everything on film to remember the repetitive things that would always happen on Christmas. Like my mother constantly reminding us of our manners before we tore into wrapping paper of sparkling snowman motifs. “Remember, girls. If you don’t like it, just pretend you do and say thank you. You can exchange it later.” Her request went beyond her desire for us to be polite. My mother was trying to preserve some Christmas dignity and grace. Slowly we came to understand her gesture. Despite being young, we intuited the holiday’s importance and how something about it demanded to be perfect, if only for one blasted minute. Even if that meant pretending, for Christ’s sake. (Literally).
Not every Christmas can be The Best Christmas ever. Ours certainly weren’t. Braised meats sometimes burned, lists were not always followed and we didn’t always get what we wanted. After Christmas 1988 there were many imperfect Christmases in fact. One that stands in particular was the year Jenny found out about Santa. Christmas 1995: I was fifteen which would have made her ten. (By then Jenny had gone seven years without her pacifier.)
She wanted moon shoes. It’s the only thing she asked Santa for. Moon shoes were popular shoes with big huge springs on the soles. In her mystical kid-imagination, (and as the commercial suggested) whoever donned the shoes became bouncy and weightless.
At that point in her life, at the tender young age of ten, Jenny was trying hard to stand up to the rumors that Santa was not real. Of all three of us girls, she proved to be the boldest and bravest—she had the guts to come right out and ask my mother, point-blank. My mother’s response was always the same for all of us; if you don’t believe in Santa, he won’t bring you any presents. Still, Jenny had her suspicions. She could sense it. We could all sense it: 1995 would make it or break it for her. It could mean the end of an era. Jenny wanted two things: to walk on the moon right here on earth and to continue to believe in Santa. Those were the two things that childhood, for her, required. And in many ways, we wanted what Jenny wanted too.
Christmas morning, 1995 we all made our way down the white-carpeted stairs, in the white-brick house my parents built in Dallas. Santa’s presents were identifiable because they were the only unwrapped gifts under the tree. But that year under the tree, there were no moon shoes. Instead, there was a pogo stick with a ribbon on it.
Jenny went through all the stages of Santa-grief in one split second: first denial, then disbelief, shock, horror, anger then outrage. My mother’s rule of thumb when it came to Christmas politeness went out the window.
“I said I wanted moooooooooooon shooooooooooooooeeeeeeeeees!” Jenny cried, stomping out of the living room, leaving us with our mouths agape.
Nana was the first to say something, “Lynn?! Why didn’t you get her the MOOOON SHOOOOES?!”
“I TOLD you! They were OUT! I couldn’t find them anywhere!”
It was all a bit melodramatic, which is of course why we laugh now when we look back. My mother knew what Jenny’s tantrum was about—it wasn’t at all about not getting what she wanted. It was about the heartbreaking disappointment of realizing your suspicions are true, that feeling of displacement when what you thought you believed was true actually isn’t.
My mother did not know what to do or how to say it and so she let someone else say it for her. She gave Jenny a Christmas card which included the editorial piece written in 1897, “Yes, Virginia, there is a SantaClaus
.” After Jenny read it, she was even more confused as she was before, the point was a little lost when wanted to know who Virginia was. Jenny didn’t understand what my mother was saying and it took her ages to get over the grudge she held against my mother. But eventually she survived the disappointment.
Disappointment followed by forgiveness equals growth.
That is what I feel to be the theme of Christmas in my family—both remote past Christmases as well as more recent ones. In all its unruly slight dysfunction, there is a brilliant glory in holidays spent with my family. It’s messy and often uncomfortable (with four women in the family my father says someone’s always bound to be upset about something). But it’s in the imperfections where our best memories can be found.
One last unrecorded memory of Christmas 1988: I played one of the angels in the nativity scene at our parish. My mother made me a flowing white gown and my father made me a halo. But my halo was nothing simple. He insisted on making this wooden contraption that attached around my waist. He ran a coat hanger up out through the back of my gown’s collar which was supposed to hold the halo above my head, give it a floating effect. Only the wood contraption looked like a medieval chastity belt and caused my gown to ride up higher than my ankles, making it too short, showing my tennies, which were less than angelic. I remember my mother trying not to laugh as she ushered me into place alongside the other perfectly dressed angels in the nativity scene who wore uncomplicatedly cute headband halos. Upper lip stiff, I went on stage with my lumpy waist-line and bared ankles, mortified. But my halo was floating. And that was the point.
In fact, I think that is the whole point of Christmas. We always expect Christmas to be one way and then, like most expectations, things just don’t turn out the way we planned or hoped or would have liked. Sure, we all gather around for the purpose of celebrating one thing, Christ’s birthday, but ultimately we celebrate things of which we are barely conscience. Tragically imperfect humans, we are celebrating the birth of a deity, and what is a deity if not everything we aren’t? Everything we aren’t is perfect. And yet still, everything we aren’t is perfect.
Christmas 2011: It has been some four or five odd years since my family has gathered, at the same table for Christmas. My sisters and I are spread out over the globe, in three different countries; Jenny in England, Jess in Manila and me in Italy. Over the last half-decade, our family, like many others, has undergone trauma and loss, endured separation and divorce and survived joblessness and even a recent heart-attack. Being in the presence of my family is a luxury that distance often does not allow for. Now that my family is separated, geographically and otherwise, we are forced to reconcile ourselves into something new, something bigger and something stronger than what we once were. And that “something” is not perfect. Never was, never will be. But it is only because of that—life’s uncomfortable halos and missed out moon shoes, that I’ve learned how to look beyond the imperfection and to extract the meaning of such dramatic disappointments. That, in a roundabout way, is just what I’ve always wanted.
Shame we couldn’t have gotten all that on camera.
This blog was part of a Holiday Blog Tour, initiated by a fellow Goddardite, Icess Fernandez of Writing to Insanity
. Thanks, Icess, for all your organizing and for asking me to be a part of it!
HOLIDAY BLOG TOUR WRITERS