Oh No Mommy's Ruining Christmas Again
Ah Christmas, that glorious time of year when the way you wish things could be collides with the way things really are and you try to cover the whole mess with frosting and sprinkles.
Last year’s family tree decorating festivities did not go well. The days had gotten away from us. Weekends leading up to Thanksgiving were filled with more than the usual forgettable but time-consuming activities. Christmas was only two weeks away and we still hadn’t put up our tree. My parents would be in town soon, and it simply had to happen now, on a Wednesday night at 7:00. Don’t ask me why. It just did. I made promises in the morning. I told my son and husband they were to go buy the tree after school. I told my son and daughter we’d be decorating it that night when I got home. No matter what. It simply couldn’t wait another day.
On my hour commute home that night I was filled with anticipation for the charming scene playing in my head. In that scene, the house was warm and tidy. Christmas Carols emanated from the air in the perfectly lit and immaculate living room. I think there was a fire raging, although we don’t have a working fireplace. The rosy-cheeked children, dressed in adorable pajamas that featured neither licensed characters, nor chocolate ice-cream stains, squealed with delight as they pulled one after another cherished ornament from the box and handed it to me ever so gently to place with love on the stunning Christmas tree. There were visions of sugar plums somewhere too, I’m sure.
This delusion continued right up to the moment when I walked into the house and saw, through the piles of dishes stacked on the unwiped counter in the complete disaster of a kitchen, the complete disaster of a living room where amongst a remarkable assortment of crumbled up pieces of paper, Legos, play food, and probably at least one poop, a tree was less than gloriously perched at a dangerously steep angle in its stand, still netted, kind of like a giant dried sage bundle waiting to be lit so it could purge the house of evil. The lighting was more fast food restaurant than magazine spread. Rather than the warm cozy feeling I was hoping for, the house was cold and silent. Instantly defeated I found myself filled with a strong urge to turn around, get back in the car and drive to a bar.
Apparently in my morning instructions I hadn’t communicated to my husband that dads are supposed to take the net off the tree outside so you can shake the dirt and loose needles off before bringing it into the house, where you put it upright in its stand so that it’s not in danger of falling onto the children, and then put lights on it (in addition to doing the dishes), before the mother of the house is due home so she can sweep into the heartwarming, picture perfect scene she’s been playing in her head all day. Note to self.
The children came running out of the living room wrapped in strings of Christmas lights. They were excited I was finally home. They too had been brimming with anticipation, and their vision did not include a tired and overly emotional mother fixated on everything that wasn’t gelling with her fantasy. I looked around trying to figure out how I could quickly make the best of this situation. Yes, “getting over it,” and “going with the flow” did come to mind, as did taking deep breaths, but none of these things were physically possible. Neither, with a child hanging on each of my legs, was running away. They had been waiting for this all afternoon and I was suddenly, painfully aware that deciding to decorate the tree at 7:00 on a school night was NOT a good idea. It was worse than a not good idea, it was a terrible idea, and there was no way out.
Even from across the room I could tell the tree was well on its way to dead, with spindly branches that wouldn’t hold small ornaments, let alone the big fancy ones. My son, who on a normal day, greets me as I get home from work by running past me screaming as he continues on his trail of terror, was standing still for the first time in his five years. Looking up at me with his big glistening eyes, he said in his best Tiny Tim voice, “Look at our tree Mommy! We picked the very best one.” Which melted my heart and made me hate myself, but didn’t make me like the tree.
I took that deep breath. I tried to get in the spirit. Cutting the net from the tree, and unleashing a shower of dead needles onto the floor, I muttered that I’d expected the lights to be on by now. I left out the part where I expected the house to look like a spread in Better Homes and Gardens and my children to be dressed from a Mini Boden catalogue with rosy cheeks to match, because my husband was already talking to me through clenched teeth and looking at me like something in the process of sprouting a second head. Apparently I wasn’t doing a very good job of masking my true feelings.
Examining the now unleashed tree, my suspicion was confirmed, they’d brought home a giant shrubbery shaved into a cone that was dry enough to use right now as kindling for the evenings home conflagration. Still muttering I started to untangle the lights from the children and put them on the tree, but the kids were getting tired and bored. I tried to tell them that we’d do it tomorrow, but they weren’t having it. I hated the tree so much I was fighting back tears and a tight feeling in my throat that made my voice into a strange squeak I could hear as if from afar imploring to “please stop touching the ornament box and wait for mama.” My husband had left the room. The kids started grabbing ornaments and sticking them on the tree haphazardly as I continued trying to get the lights up while running interference between a two-year-old and a five-year-old and the box full of glass. In my head I told myself to let them do it, to fix it later, to relax, to do and be anyone other than the person I was being — which only made me act like a malfunctioning android.
If I hadn’t been having a first world problems attack, I might have noticed that we had invented a charming new sport where the children try to grab as many breakable ornaments from the box as they can hold in their tiny hands, and throw them onto the tree, while the mother stands in front of the tree trying to stop them while simultaneously trying to finish putting up the lights and re-hang the ornaments that are being hung (a verb I use loosely), generally in a row, on a single, drooping branch that is poised to dump them all on the ground at any moment. Another, more relaxed mother, perhaps would be laughing with delight to participate in this sweet moment of togetherness, rather than having a panic attack and screaming with futile desperation to “stop immediately,” and “put that back now!” Not this lady.
The night ended, predictably, with the children in their beds and me weeping and decorating the Christmas tree alone. That’s not mentioning the episode between those two events with me sobbing to my husband on our bed about how I didn’t want to feel this way, but I did and didn’t know what to do about it. And him looking at me in complete bafflement with no idea what to say or do to make Christmas Momster stop her rampage. What he, and probably I, didn’t understand was at the heart of my distress wasn’t the conflict between how I wanted to behave and how I was behaving. The conflict was between my desire to create a magical Christmas experience for my children, in which the tree and all the trimmings serve as garnishes to the true experience, and my desire to create a beautiful Christmas for myself, in which the children and the husband serve as garnishes to the true experience.
Christmas when I was a child felt perfect. And I say this with a full understanding that there was nothing perfect about it. No doubt my mother, who to me was the great orchestrator of this wonderful Christmas feeling, probably didn’t give a lot of thought to the magic-ness of our experience. But nevertheless, it was magic to me. Every year, she’d bring sparkling ornaments and amazing sequined holiday objects up from the basement in big old crumpled moving boxes that smelled of must. I remember the fun of peering into the boxes excited to discover their contents once again. Digging in and carefully removing each ornament from the round tissue paper that in a previous season had come wrapped around a Harry and David pear was almost better than opening presents on Christmas morning. My mother was clearly in charge, and we knew how to follow. And at the end of a whole day of boxes emerging from the basement, and discoveries and unwrapping, the house would be transformed into a new world of felt doorknob covers, egg-carton christmas trees, plaster Santas, plastic elves, and creches with shepherds, and animals carefully arranged around a tiny little baby. In the center of it all, on the closed top of our piano, was a world created entirely of shaped candles, with a whole choir of wax choirboys and glistening trees surrounded by tiny red-tipped mushrooms and woodland creatures. And next to the piano was the most majestic tree of any of the trees I’d ever seen, chopped by my dad the day before at the same tree farm where we went every year, it filled our house with the clean sharp smell of a whole forest of pine trees. And all of this lit with sparkling and bubbling lights that made our house warmer and cozier, and more beautiful than any house I’d ever seen. Even though there were lots of things about living in that house that weren’t so great, and looking closely, many of the ornaments were old and chipped and more than one Santa was missing an arm or boot, at Christmas, it was easy to pretend everything was as wonderful and perfect as our decorations made it seem. And I loved it. It was the one time of year where everything lived up to my expectations. When magic was really real, when everything shone, when being in our family was just the place I wanted to be.
But starting as a child, I also started imagining my own Christmas, the one I would create when I grew up. And a lot of that imagined Christmas was a sampling of what I wanted my life to be. I imagined all the expensive, sumptuous foods I’d order from William Sonoma to share with family and friends, the fabulous decorations I’d choose to make my gorgeous house even more splendid. And when I grew up and before I had kids, my life may not have been the way I’d once imagined it, but my Christmas could be exactly what I wanted. I made fabulous decorator trees — one year flocked, another covered in blue feathers. It was always perfect, but missing the kids. And now I have them. Sweet and excited and eager — and oddly, I’m stressed out about not providing them with the special Christmas feeling that always meant so much to me, while not totally able to just let them have it.
I still think of Christmas as a time when you’re allowed to make your life look and feel the way you wish it could all year around, grander and more special than it really is. When the reality of long work days, activities, not enough money, disappointments and messes takes a back seat to making cookies together and wearing ridiculous outfits in a sparkling house filled with sappy music. But I need to remember that my childrens’ Christmas, and their magic are not mine. And perhaps a good part of making Christmas magic for them is to help them have it, without dictating what that is (acknowledging that a screaming mother with weird expectations, probably won’t help cultivate the feeling either). And, I think, I also need to be ok with the idea that I can still have some of these things just for me.
This year the tree decoration went better. I had a plan — and that plan included making myself happy. It also included enough reality to make the whole thing pleasant, but not so much that it would be ruined. We bought a pre-lit artificial Christmas tree because, a. It’s easier and b. living in Southern California, the trip to get a live one isn’t a traipse through a field of snow covered trees, but a drive to the Home Depot. We brought out the decorations only after cleaning the living room, so that I could enjoy the moment in a house I was pretending always looked this nice. The trimming happened on a Sunday evening at a very sensible 5:00 after eating the pizza we ordered so there were no dishes to do, and I could guarantee I didn’t get hangry. There was hot-chocolate, but the homemade cookies were put off for another day. Instead of listening to Burl Ives on the record player, my preferred soundtrack, we played a Christmas movie on the television that drew the children’s attention enough I could mostly decorate the tree by myself, but still feel like my family was a part of it. Instead of expecting the kids to hand me ornaments out of the box, I put ornaments I felt ok with them adding to the tree on a table, and as long as I added ornaments to their pile fast enough, they mostly didn’t go for my box. The night still ended with me finishing the tree alone, but this time it was because the kids got bored, not because they were hiding. I still yelled, “don’t touch it!” a few times, but overall, I wasn’t embarrassed by my behavior and the event was a big improvement. And in the morning, when the kids woke up and saw it all finished, my son said, “Mommy what a beautiful Christmas tree you made.”