"My biggest worry," I said to Lynn on Christmas Eve, "is making sure that we get to the living room before Josie does. I want to see her face when she sees the bike."
At just two months shy of three years old, Josie has been in full-blown Christmas mode for weeks, with the hoped-for bicycle a constant preoccupation. Her Mom has used it to combat "Santa fear." Last year, there were no pictures of Josie with Santa -- she wouldn't go near him. But this year her Mom told her that if she wanted that bicycle she was going to have to ask Santa. In person. It worked. She had several opportunities to sit on Santa's lap and explain about the bicycle and she wasn't the least bit shy about doing it. And I laughed out loud when I had her up on my shoulders while we were watching the Christmas parade at DisneyWorld -- as the various characters danced by, she'd shout out their names and wave. When Santa's float came by she shouted, "Santa! Bicycle! Bicycle!!" Marian said that in the last few days before Christmas she was starting to wonder if she was really going to get one.
I put the bike together on Saturday and we had it stashed in the basement. It surprised me, a couple of years ago, to find that the tradition for Lynn & Marian is that the presents from Santa -- one or two "big" things -- are left unwrapped in front of the tree. They were shocked when I told them that when I was growing up the Santa presents were all wrapped -- sometimes even using the same patterns that my parents had used for the presents they gave us. "How would he have time to do all that wrapping!" said Marian disgustedly. "Elves?" But no go... So our tradition is that Santa's presents are unwrapped.
Christmas traditions are like that, though. What we think of as the way it is supposed to be usually comes out of just a few years that seemed to be emblematic. For me it was the years between, say, three and ten, when my parents created what I still think of as the classic Christmas. In early December my father would buy a fresh cut Christmas tree from one of the local lots. It would be frozen. In those days, the temperature in Wisconsin was always well below freezing by December. He'd toss it into one of the snowbanks beside the house.
On the 21st or 22nd, he'd bring it in and put it in the stand so that it would thaw and the branches could "fall". As it thawed, it'd fill up the house with pine scent. The next evening he'd assess the tree's fullness and move a few branches around, if need be. The 23rd would be tree-trimming night, a family party that we thought of as the official start of the Christmas holiday. We used big, multi-colored bulbs, with tin reflectors, and lots of pretty glass balls & baubles as ornaments. Sometimes we'd hang strings of cranberries or popcorn. And there was lots of tinsel. The evening of the 24th and all day on Christmas would be spent with his sister's family alternating between their house and ours.
This is the way that I remember the classic Christmas. But how many of those did I actually have? Discount the first couple when I wasn't yet clued into what was going on. Then, once I get into double digits, my oldest sister is in high school and dating and pretty soon my attentions are more and more out of the house and the patterns start to shift. So I had maybe six or seven or eight of those Christmases?
I was talking about this a few days ago with my Mom. When she and my Dad got together, the most important thing for them was the family they wanted to create. So they made our classic Christmas out of their own fantasies, cobbled together from movies & books & their own inchoate desires. Given that she had five kids, evenly spaced out, my mother had a core of maybe fifteen years of what I think of as those classic Christmases. The traditions evolved. The cast changed.
When I married Sandy, we evolved our own Christmas patterns that didn't much resemble what either of us had grown up with. When I was single again I had a string of Christmases that were each quite different. And then, with Lynn, I moved into a new set of routines that were boundaried by the fact that Marian would spend Christmas Eve with her dad's family and Christmas Day with her Mom.
Now we're building new traditions, stretching the pattern that we've established over the past decade to incorporate Josie and this surprise of a nuclear family that we've become. The Christmases that we have these next few years will be what she'll build her "classic Christmas" memories from.
And since I know how few of those we'll really have, I don't want to miss a moment. Fortunately, I wake up half an hour before the girls do, so I have time to get the coffee going, make sure the tree lights are on, and settle in on the couch to write in my journal for awhile. Then Marian hollers down, "She's up!" Lynn rushes out to her spot on the couch and Josephine enters the room.
She stands shyly a few feet from the bicycle, twisting her hands, an unbelieving grin on her face. She looks from one to another of us -- is this it? Is it really here? Is it finally really happening? And then walks forward and touches it and laughs and laughs.
We open the presents slowly, one by one. We have potato pancakes & champagne for brunch. We play games in the afternoon, take Josie out on her bike. I show her how to hold the little guitar that I've given her. We tell each other the stories behind the gifts. In the evening, we have the traditional spaghetti & meatballs dinner and then settle in to watch a Christmas movie on DVD.
This is the way that Christmas is supposed to be.