I’m doing a carry-out with a coworker, a flat screen TV, no more than 50 inches or so and very light. Because it’s raining outside we can’t set it down on the ground. We both hold one end of it, while we wait for the customer to pull up in her car.
Inside at the customer service desk where I work, middle schoolers sing Christmas carols. My coworker, an older woman, remarks how nice it is that they came. “People used to do that,” she says, “go door-to-door and sing Christmas carols to their neighbors. People opened their doors to them, but nobody does that anymore. People tell them to go away.”
An ex-boyfriend once asked me, when we spent our first Christmas together, what my family’s traditions were for the holidays. His family had a number of Christmas traditions that allowed them to spend time together, so they could share their love for each other and make memories. Family traditions are not something I thought about before, so I said, “I dunno. Going to the movies, I guess.”
Growing up as a child of divorced parents, I spent Christmas with one or the other side of the family, so our traditions varied. My dad’s side opened presents on Christmas Day, and my mom’s side opened presents on Christmas Eve. My dad’s side watched football and played board games while engaging in the polite conversation of English Protestants. My mom’s side watched movies and drank Scotch while arguing across the room in the way of Irish Catholics.
Families have traditions but don’t remember where they came from. All they know is that they do the Christmas Thing because they did the Christmas Thing the year before that and the year before that and so on. Years down the road, you forget why you were doing the Christmas Thing in the first place, and you believe that you must do the Christmas Thing or else it won’t feel like Christmas at all.
What is it all for?
My sister, Kisa, started a new family tradition with her brood of four kids: eating off of paper plates. I don’t mind it one bit. You want to know another Christmas tradition we had on my mom’s side? Eating Christmas dinner off of Grandma Jane’s special Christmas china. Grandma Jane grew up during the Great Depression, and she was raised to believe that just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you can’t have class.
Until my dying breath, I will appreciate that my grandmother taught me how to be a woman of class, but I won’t appreciate washing her special Christmas china for a family of twenty some odd people. You can’t put that shit in the dishwasher. You have to wash it. By hand. Twenty people. No, thanks.
Today the only Christmas tradition I want to observe is spending the holiday in my pajamas, eating pie, and watching Elf and Die Hard. I dread this time of year. The holidays are not kind to my mental health, and this time of year, it takes three times the effort to stay balanced.
What makes it harder is that I am not allowed to feel that way. I am expected to love it. When I share my true feelings people look at me in shock as if I casually mentioned that I eat endangered animals for breakfast.
So it may seem odd that I would choose to work in retail in December of all months, but my logic was that if I was going to be stressed out during the holidays, then I may as well get paid for it. The structure, distraction, and hours have been fantastic.
It also makes me ask, what is it all for?
A week out from Christmas there is not a lot of joy and cheer at the customer service counter. Early in the holiday season, my smile and warmth could disarm even the grumpiest customers, but the closer we get to Christmas the more that charm is wearing off.
My customers come to me weary and frazzled. They don’t like my answers when things don’t turn out quite the way they want them too. “Can’t you just ______ ?“ is a phrase I hear a lot from people who don’t like the options I can give them.
I see it in their eyes, how tired and weary they are of this monumental holiday. Yet they put so much effort into finding the perfect gift, perfect table settings, and perfect decorations because it is the Christmas Thing. The holidays are unkind to them as well.
So I ask you, what is it all for?
After so many years, my Christmas tradition has become clear. The perfect Christmas is an imperfect one.
Watching boxes of coordinated Christmas ornaments come through my line reminds me of decorating the Christmas tree with Grandma Endacott (dad’s side) and my older sister Kezia, (not related to my sister Kisa. It’s hard to explain. Just go with it.) Grandma Endacott waited for Kezia and me to visit for the holiday so we could help her decorate the tree, and it was something that the three of us did together.
My grandmother’s ornaments weren’t coordinated but were an eclectic collection of decorations that she had picked up over the years. It was a joy to decorate the tree. Each ornament was different and unique in its own way.
Grandma Endacott also grew up dirt poor during the Great Depression. Like many of her generation, she stocked her kitchen with cans of food, boxes of cereal, and cartons of milk. Over fifty years later, scarcity still had an imprint on her memory. Generations today will not grow up with that living memory and the value that nothing is wasted or taken for granted.
I don’t remember what presents were under those Christmas trees that I decorated with Grandma Endacott and Kezia, and I don’t make an effort to decorate my home for the holidays. I don’t feel the need to. Grandma Jane taught me to be a woman of class, and Grandma Endacott taught me how to carry myself with humility and grace and appreciate the gifts that I do have. Those are the traditions worth passing on.