Until moving to California (and having babies) Thor and I generally traveled elsewhere for the holidays, usually to visit family although one winter we went on a month-long journey to Spain and Morocco. So until a few years ago, we weren’t really “settled” enough to have a tree of our own.
People who know my atheist ways are sometimes surprised that we have a tree. Because the definition of an atheist is someone who scowls at Christmas lights, right?
I will admit to some scroogery: I dislike at least half of the music currently on death-loop in all shopping venues. Inflatable decorations disturb me, and so does no-holds-barred mercantilism.
We are lukewarm on Santa Claus and have no plans to goad our children onto his lap. (For one thing, that would mean voluntarily entering the mall.) But we hang his jolly face on our tree, he takes credit for a few gifts, and maybe we’ll remember to leave out a cookie and eggnog this year if we don’t go into way-past-bedtime-meltdown mode like we did last year.
I have always clung to certain things being exactly the same. For example, I still don’t like real maple syrup on pancakes. I don’t favor a handful of fake syrups, or even all versions of one brand. No, I crave the “lite” (haha) type of Aunt Jemima. Because that’s what we had when we were little. Many of these habits I’ve managed to shrug off. The ones that are left I mostly treasure, snuggly tendrils of memory that they are.
There was a time when I was the atheist scowling at Christmas lights. In high school, after my mom had died. Because it wasn’t going to be the same at all. How could it be. Different living room. Different kind of tree. Different kind of lights. Different tree-topper. And, of course, there wasn’t going to be mom, in her nightgown and robe, radiating Christmas in her smile, her yellow mug, her enormous thick glasses usually passed over in favor of contacts, her perfect mommy smell, her comforting warmth. Tucked into her favorite chair, she sipped coffee while watching our disorderly melee. We would rocket into her lap to give hugs of thanks before plummeting back under the tree for more.
Some of the ornaments were the same, and they looked the way I felt: misplaced at someone else’s Christmas.
My dad had remarried and I adored my new family — my new siblings and I bonded at a rate that exceeded all expectations. I felt at home in our new house. I loved finding each person the perfect gift. But I hated Christmas intensely those first few years. Eventually the sting of not-the-same lessened, especially once Christmas became a time for reunion, a brief return to the nest for fledgeling adults. Simply put, being happy together trumped holding a grudge against a holiday.
My in-laws absorbed me seamlessly into their Christmas whenever we visited, and it was easy to catch a whiff of holiday spirit at their farm. Unavoidable, really, what with the snow falling, woodstove burning, horses huffing sweet clouds into the air, trekking across fields with a frolicking dog… We used to go to my grandparents’ farm almost every year the day after Christmas, and my in-laws’ home just sort of slipped into that same place in my heart rather effortlessly.
Our holiday vagabond ways ended. We moved to a land without snow. I made stockings the Christmas I was pregnant with Owlet — four of them, since we intended to have two kids — and couldn’t wait to find out what names I would get to sew onto them. And we got our first tree.
We opened up the Christmas box full of things saved from my childhood and began decorating.
It was our living room. Our tree (almost the right kind — these California trees are a little whippy of limb, but they’ll do). The very same strands of lights that I had growing up. The first year, we had a flying monkey on top. The second year, I made a star.
Everything in its place. The ornaments and I, at home.
And somehow I am Mommy.
My pajamas and tea mug and rumpled hair are forever enshrined as Christmas icons wherever my children may go from here.
So yes, I am an atheist. And yes, I have a Christmas tree. Happy solstice to you and yours.
(If you are interested in a brief informal history of Christmas, this guy did a good job.)