There is a an evolution to Christmas, a continuum one travels throughout life. Though the reason for the season is unchanging, our relationship with it does change to fit not only one’s age but life’s circumstances as well.
My early memories of Christmas involve the red vinyl stockings with jingle bells on them that we placed at the ends of our bed on Christmas Eve and were full when we woke in the morning. Falling asleep on Christmas Eve was always difficult, virtually anything in the Sears Wish Book might be awaiting me in the morning. I remember awakening to the sound of the jingle bells and seeing my father back-lit from the hall light, his hand on my stocking. “Just checking, he hasn’t been here yet.” was his reply to what must have been my curious Cindy Lou Who sleepy-headed expression. My own children’s stockings reside by the fireplace but the rules regarding the contents of stockings are the same, they can be opened whenever the “child” awakens but they need to leave Mom and Dad alone. This must seem like a rule to allow for parents to leisurely begin their holiday by sleeping in. That has never been part of the Rose family tradition, for at least three generations, though I suspect further back than that. The Rose Christmas breakfast involves gathering at 9:00 am, by gathering I don’t mean meeting up at the dining room table in ones pajamas. As children we had done our stockings, opened our Santa gifts and those from family and were scrubbed, polished and in our finery at Grandpa Roses’ pink house in Golden Valley by nine o’clock sharp. We arrived to the aroma of Grandpa burning the bacon and high ball glasses painted with festive holly that were filled with quality eggnog. Ten of us surrounded the same table where the “adults” of my family will gather this Sunday (you know what time) and there was always a candy cane at each place setting and perhaps some other little token item. After my grandfather died we had breakfast at home, in a less formal manner. After my own father passed we took our celebration to a hotel buffet for a few years and once my brothers and I all had places of our own, we began a rotation of hosting. As adults we have taken the item at each place setting to a new level we refer to as “table gifts”, sometimes amusing, often practical and occasionally inappropriate selections that I start looking for on December 26th for the next year.
My childhood Christmas Eves varied, sometimes we were at my aunt and uncles where the children played and the grownups consumed hot drinks called Tom & Jerry’s or sipped amber liquids from short ice-filled glasses. Typically we got to open a package from under the tree on Christmas Eve, a tradition we have maintained with our own children. As I got older I would often hang out at my best friend’s house and attended midnight mass which was festive with song and fragrant incense. Despite living only across the street from each other Santa delivered her families gifts during Mass and on my side of Vincent Avenue the gifts didn’t show up until the next morning. I’m thinking Santa needed some sort of routing system to help make his job more efficient and less labor intensive. Once I met my husband we began spending Christmas Eve with his family, though on occasion the Pribyl celebration would take place on another day entirely to accommodate a sibling traveling and rotating celebrations at their in-laws. On those “off years” we would stop in at my best friend’s parents house or attend an open-house hosted by the parents of the children who were in our wedding party. Though the people were not always the same, I always enjoyed the festive gatherings, the people and the food.
When it comes to holiday food traditions I loved any baked good my aunt Patty made; rum balls, corn-flake wreaths with Red Hots and fudge come to mind. My best friend’s mom was a veritable Mrs. Claus who baked twelve months out of the year, I can think of nothing she made that I didn’t like. At my house, the Christmas baking consisted of Spritz cookies, with the heavy buttery dough being so dense that we actually broke the seam on the metal cookie press one year.
Once we had children of our own, my husband and his siblings began hosting the festivities. Our traditions are less formal when it comes to food, though my husband loves to make multiple batches of Chex Mix from Thanksgiving through New Years and his Korean Chicken Wings are a family favorite. I make caramels. After the death of his brother and the aging of his parents, the Christmas Eve traditions have changed as well. This is the first Christmas since his father has passed away, having spent his last several years in a Nursing Home. It was a number of years ago at my sister-in-laws on Christmas Eve when I first observed how terrified he was of the Alzheimer’s that was eclipsing him. While we sat on the couch watching others open gifts he looked at me in panic and said “I’m afraid I won’t remember who gave things to me.” I tried to gently reassure him “That doesn’t matter Pop, when you wear something or use something just know that somebody who loves you gave it to you. Nobody minds if you don’t know it’s from them.” It was only a couple of years later while we were hosting that I noted a distinct change in his mother’s behavior. Almost immediately upon arrival she exuded an anxiety “Are we eating now or opening presents?” she asked. I told her that we were simply enjoying each others company while waiting for others to arrive. She was worried that it was getting dark, which at 4:00 pm on a December day is typical. She seemed to be made anxious by the crowd, though it was simply her children, their spouses and her grand kids. It seemed cruel that a gathering that she had once enjoyed was now clearly causing her stress on multiple levels. I suggested to her daughters that perhaps in the future each family could independently visit her on her turf during the last couple of weeks of the year, to help eliminate the confusion of so many people, the anxiety brought on by the travel and to allow her to enjoy time with each of her children. We continue to open our home on Christmas Eve, the gatherings are smaller as new traditions form and the next generation reaches adulthood. We continue to enjoy the company of Jeff’s uncles and others whose plans allow them to attend.
Last night we celebrated Christmas with Jeff’s mother Grace. While Betsy worked selling Christmas trees, Eddie and I joined Jeff for a visit to Le Sueur. We arrived at 4:00 and gave her her gift. As the years have passed we have moved from the frivolous to the practical. It’s a clock designed for those with dementia, it not only provides the time but also the day and date and when in the day it is (six settings ranging from morning through night). Unlike his father’s Alzheimer’s which had him confusing who people were to eventually no longer recognizing them, his mothers dementia has erased her short term memory and has her fixate on a topic. During this visit she asked Eddie how tall he was perhaps a dozen times, then would follow-up with whether or not that was taller than his dad and ending with whether or not he thought he was done growing. On a couple of occasions she wrapped up with “Probably when you’re 18 or 19.” (he’s 21). Other trips it’s been the large trucks on the roads that catch her attention, yet another recent visit she was fixated on a child with special needs who was in the restaurant we took her to. Despite the confusion and the repetition, visiting her in her own space and taking her out locally for a meal or coffee as a small group seems to keep her anxiety at bay. So despite it not being “the same” as how we used to enjoy the holiday, it’s the best way for us to allow her to enjoy the holiday now.
Throughout this year and especially in recent weeks, I have seen a lot of social media posts regarding the loss of loved ones, parents and spouses alike. I know for many that as family situations change, so do many of the traditions that we hold dear. The changing of traditions to accommodate the needs or situations of others does not detract from the memories of Christmas past or the hopes for Christmas in the future. Situations change and whether it is financial, travel, health or loss of a loved one that changes your celebration this year, may you find comfort in the special memories and traditions that have made this holiday your own. Merry Christmas to all and best wishes for a happy and healthy 2017.