Wednesday, December 21, 2011

We Wish You A Merry Christmas

As I sit here writing this, I realize how much things have changed since the movie “Holiday Inn” when Bing Crosby sat at his piano crooning about his dreams for a White Christmas.

As I write this, my daughter is “talking” at the top of her lungs about going to Build A Bear Workshop and well, at least I have good old Bing playing on iTunes…that is until Maddie demands I put on “The Teddy Song” and it isn’t in honor of our trip to build her a bear, rather a song by the girl who plays Teddy on Good Luck Charlie (you have to watch Disney Channel on a regular basis to get this reference.)

Yes, the Holidays certainly have changed, but I guess that image I have was just a movie, and for all we know Bing went and drank a fifth of scotch and smoked a pipe after that scene was shot.  Either way, he helped create one of the fondest memories of Christmas that I carry on with me to this day.

See, I grew with my grandparents and a mom who plopped me in front of MGM musicals instead of Sesame Street.  My all time favorite movie is "Singin’ in the Rain" and really anything with Gene Kelly. My favorite Christmas album is Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gourmet’s “Happy Holiday.”  One year Tom spent an entire day hunting down the “Meet Me In St. Louis” DVD because I am a sucker for Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” I’ll be the first to admit, I am a total nerd.

For me these movies and their music represent one of the best parts of my childhood, my grandfather.  As I’ve said before, had he been discovered he would have given any member of the Rat Pack a run for their money.  He could sing, he could dance and had one of the best senses of humor I’ve ever come across.  I’d like to think he helped develop my quick wit. 

When it came to Christmas, he was Clark Griswold before there was a Clark Griswold, but used much better judgment and better taste when it came to Holiday décor.  Of course, sine he was such a perfectionist, decorating had some very specific rules.

  1. Not a single Chrismas decoration was put up until at least December 18th. (I realize now that probably also had a lot to do with frugality, another one of his fine qualities.)
  2. We could not take down the decorations until Little Christmas (The Epiphany) on January 6th.  That also meant we could not put the Wiseman at the manger scene until this date since the Epiphany celebrated their arrival at the manger and when they gave baby Jesus the gold, frankincense and myrrh.
  3. Our Christmas tree always had the same ornaments, gold balls (small, medium and large), gold teardrop ornaments, and crystal ornaments.  If they weren’t part of this collection, they didn’t belong on the tree.  If they weren’t gold or crystal, they didn’t belong on the tree. If they were handmade, they ABSOLUTELY did not belong on the tree.
  4. Only white twinkle lights were allowed.
  5. Only gold garland and it had to be perfectly measured distance between each row. (Yes, he and my mom would pull out yardstick to measure to make sure)

Despite these strict rules, it was fun and exciting.  There was holly, Santas and Poinsettias everywhere and there were candy canes on every lampshade. As we got older and liked to play tricks on my grandpa and we would try to sneak red ornaments, candy canes or clothespin reindeers on the tree to see if he would notice.  He ALWAYS did.  We had another Christmas tree in the basement that was for “kid” ornaments.

My freshman year of college, I told my grandpa that I wanted to come home for Christmas break and have the house all decorated, like a Folgers coffee commercial.  Of course, I was getting home before December 18, so I pretty much assumed rather than having it already decorated, I would be holding a yardstick up to the tree to measure garland.  My grandpa was the one who happened to pick me up from school and when I got down to the car, he was actually asleep.  He was not the type of person to fall asleep in a parked car…that was my dad’s M.O.  I knocked on his window and startled him.  He seemed a little embarrassed that I had caught him taking a short winter’s nap.  I got in the car and half-joked about his sleepiness and he explained that he had been up late finishing the Christmas decorations.  That was my Pa.  I still think that part of his efforts were really to create a distraction from my grandmother's erratic behavior especially during the Holiday's, but that is a whole other story.

Of course, despite all his best efforts, Christmas was always a little bit more “blue” than “silver and gold” for me.  I guess the first reason would be that we were the kids who got apples and oranges in their stockings and not because my mom was a health-nut.  Socks and underwear were considered “gifts” and thanks to my middle brother, Mark, I stopped believing in Santa at the ripe old age of four.  I’ll never forget that fateful day in Jewel when I innocently asked my mom how many more days until Santa came.  My brother had just turned nine and promptly said, “There’s no Santa, STUPID!”  I was confused, devastated, but ultimately found his cruel words were a reality when we found all of our Christmas gifts hidden in a wheelbarrow covered with a blanket the next week.

Then there was the fact that I was fully aware at an early age that we had no money.  At first I didn’t realize that it wasn’t normal to live with your grandparents.  I didn’t realize that most dads worked, unlike mine.  Once I started school and saw how other “normal” families functioned and heard the long lists of gifts my friends at school had gotten, I realized we were far from “normal.”

Based on this information, I also knew that when our car broke down without fail every November or December, that that meant that there was likely limited funds available for “Santa” (a.k.a. my single mom who worked her ass off to provide for us.)  I knew when my mom was wrapping our presents and could sense her stress with each piece of scotch tape she used to secure the wrapping paper.  Despite all her efforts, she never got Christmas presents.  Even before my parents divorced when I was ten, she didn’t get pearl earrings or diamond necklaces from my dad.  She didn’t even get a box of chocolates.  I remember being really young and feeling bad for my mom so I found a little jewelry box and put a penny, a piece of yarn that I placed in a swirl, a Hershey Kiss and some other “trinkets.”  That was all I had to give to her and knew it wasn’t the “best gift ever,” but I felt the need to give her something.  I don’t know if she remembers that, appreciated it or knew how sincere my intent was, but perhaps now she will.

As the years wore on, I learned that beyond my family’s stress around the Holiday’s, I grew into my seasonal depression and eventually learned how lonely the Holiday’s can be when you are chronically single.  I longed for those romantic Christmases under the mistletoe, fun-filled New Year’s with fancy dresses, champagne and kissing the man of my dreams at midnight. (betcha didn’t know I am a closet romantic?)  But those were non-existent and I spent many years favoring Sarah McLachlan “Song For A Winter’s Night” and Faith Hill’s “Where Are You Christmas” over “Sleigh Ride!”

Fast-forward several years and now I have my own Holiday magic.  Let’s start with Tom.  They say you marry a man like your father and since that would be a monumentally bad idea, I chose the next best thing, someone like my grandpa.  Tom has the same zeal when it comes to Christmas and enjoys putting snowmen and Santas on every flat surface.  He even bought a 6-foot Santa one year.  Since we have outgrown our house, our giant Santa now lives at grandma and grandpa’s house.  As much as I am sure the kids would enjoy having him around, I always had a mini-heart attach when I came down the stairs because I thought there was a man standing in my family room.  Tom also LOVES winter and even went so far as to build a hockey rink in our backyard this year.  I only approved this idea because my grandpa use to freeze the yard when my mom was a kid and well as when we were kids.

Tom looks at Christmas the eyes of a child. (I won’t mention the various other things he also sees through the eyes of a child…)  Second, he made all my romantic Holiday movie dreams come true by proposing to me three days before Christmas.  We went downtown to the Art Institute and he proposed in the Stock Exchange Room.  We had some history with that room from the first time we dated several years prior and went to the Art Institute on a date.  We never managed to find the room that time. 

Now that we have children, Christmas has a whole new meaning.  If you ever want to shift your perspective on Christmas and what it is all about, have kids.  It is fun to get excited along with them and make all their Christmas wishes come true.  I have gone from being the Grinch to Santa.  I even sprint downstairs first thing in the morning to make sure our Elf on the Shelf is hidden when I forget.  I don’t dare do anything to shatter their fragile imaginations.  I sit at Maddie’s Holiday recital and cry at her rendition of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” complete with hand gestures and clapping 3-beats off everyone else.

However, I also find the biggest challenge is to make sure we don’t over-do it on Christmas. I cringe every time they see a commercial during the weeks leading up to Christmas for all the latest games and toys.  If I had a penny for each time I here, “Oh, MOM!  Can I have that please??? Pretty please!!!??” I could pay for all the things they are asking for.   I want to give them the world, but have to hold back.  While we do make sure that we get the kids nice gifts, I have been very adamant about teaching the kids about giving to others, especially to those in need.  I’ll have to admit, it has been tricky incorporating Santa into the whole concept, since in their mind’s Santa visits all the houses of all the boys and girls.  So we simplified it and said that since the people we are giving to are so poor, they don’t have homes for Santa to go to.  It seemed much easier than telling her that there is no such thing as Santa and discussing various socio-economic statuses.

I decided to give up on doing goody bags for the kids to bring to school because that seems to be the “norm” in preschool.  See article I wrote for Kane County Magazine. I started with donating to UNICEF for Halloween and did a donation to Toys for Tots for Christmas.  I also made sure I explained, at least to Maddie who understands, what I did.  I made a cutout of a Christmas stocking and put one Candy Cane on it with a note saying that our family made a donation on behalf of the class.  This way, the kids still get to bring a treat and I put the money I would spend on useless toys and candy they don’t need and put it towards a good cause.

I have had several conversations with Maddie about why we donate money, clothes and food to the poor.  I’ve explained the giving tree at church and why her teacher asks that instead of giving her a gift at Christmas that we bring an unwrapped gift for her to donate.  I explained that some people don’t have money and have given examples of why. I explained that many kids don’t have lots of toys like they do.  That some kids don’t get to go to Target and pick things out at random, even from the dollar bin.   I told her that some kids don’t even have food or clothes and we need to help them out.  I even briefly explained to her at one point that I didn’t have money when I was a kid.  I explained that I lived with my grandparents because we couldn’t afford our own home. 

After a trip to Target this week to get the toys for Maddie to bring to her teacher, we were talking about what charity we should donate to for her class.  We decided on Toys for Tots.  She was quiet for a few minutes and then said, “Well, mom, you were poor when you were little, right?” 

“Yes,” I replied.

“Well, did people have to donate to you and your family so you could have toys?”

“Well, Maddie, luckily I had grandparents who made sure I had presents under the tree at Christmas.”  At that point, I sat right there in the turn lane and cried.  I pulled myself together enough to add, “GiGi and Pa were my angels even before they went to heaven.”

If not for my mom working her ass off for us, my grandparents and other family members there to support us, we so very easily could have been on the receiving end of the “Giving Tree” at church.  We could have been the ones in line at the food pantry collecting food that other families donated.  While I don’t want to weigh my young kids with “the heavy stuff” too early in life, I think it is never too young to teach them about gratitude and giving, especially to those less fortunate.  I never want to have my kids carry the weight of the world on their shoulders as I did growing up, but I don’t ever want them to take what they have for granted either.  I don’t want to hide where I came from, but don’t want to pull the old “when I was your age I use to walk to school with shoes with holes and no socks in the snow and freezing weather, uphill, backwards and then ate grizzle for dinner.”  That wasn’t how it was at all.  I took the bus.

All kidding aside, my real message is that one that my mom taught me a long time ago and helps me avoid getting caught up in “the material things” and ensures that I always remember those in need, “There is always someone better off, and always someone worse off than us.  There’s no use worrying about who has what.”  My other message is what my family taught me and that is you never turn a blind-eye to those in need. 

Of course we can't ignore teaching our kids the real "reason for the season" and explain that it is Jesus' birthday and we have the Advent calendar (which I hope serves its purpose beyond feeding their need for sweets.)  Luckily, if our lessons at home and at church are lost, the kids both go to Lutheran Preschools and it is taught there.  A few weeks ago Maddie had her dance recital and one of the teachers came up to me at the end and said that while the kids were waiting for the show to begin they were all coloring Christmas pictures.  Maddie flipped her paper over and started her own free-hand picture of Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus.  She kept asking the teacher how to spell each one of their names while all the other kids were coloring Santas and Christmas trees.  Atta girl, way to rack up points with the Big Guy Upstairs.

We will spoil our children this Christmas, but at least I know that we also made efforts not only to be charitable because “we should,” but because we can and am thankful for that.  Most importantly, we need  to focus on how good it feels to give to others.  I am also happy that, at least in some way, my 4-year old daughter has an understanding of that and hope that despite her undying need for an Easy Bake Oven, she will know how lucky she is that we….I mean “Santa,” got her one.

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