My wife is staring at the angel I just purchased. “What is that?” she asks. “That goes on top of our Christmas tree. It’s amazing, right?” The angel is really large. It’s rigged to change bright colors every five seconds. “If I want to have a seizure and disrupt the entire feng shui of the Christmas tree, that’s a great angel,” she says. “So, you don’t like it?” I ask. “Not so much,” she says.
I plug the angel in and put it on the windowsill. This seems like a great idea until Robyn says that when she comes home from work and gets out of the car, seeing that particular angel in our house makes her want to walk into some other house on the block and start a new life there. “Where would you suggest I install my angel?” She ticks off five ideas. “A spare drawer, the closet, under the bed, a trash can or anywhere out of sight would do.”
I’m all about Peace on Earth. But when you get Christmas wrong, it’s Hell on Earth. No Good Will toward Men. Christmas should be a time for togetherness and love, but it can be a battleground. When you first start sharing your Christmas with someone, you might discover some of your holiday traditions clash. We’ve been married 16 years now, but those early Christmas times were hard.
“Where are the colored lights?” I ask Robyn as we decorate our first Christmas tree together. “There are no colored lights. Just white lights. White lights are classic and beautiful. Colored lights are not.” I nod. “We always had colored lights in my house growing up in Salisbury, North Carolina. Are you saying that all my Christmas trees growing up were tacky and trashy like beer can pyramids with tinsel?” Robyn shrugs. “No, you just admitted that they were. I hardly had to say a thing.”
Sometimes I have no good responses. I just sulk in another room for a bit until my torpor passes. Then I have an idea. Robyn grew up all over the place. Born in Texas, she lived in California, Louisiana and New England before coming to Chapel Hill. “Are the white lights a northern thing?” I ask her. “No. White Christmas tree lights are just a classic pretty thing. Upscale. Fashionable. Without respect to geography.” I absorb that information. Then I go sulk some more.
The white lights aren’t the only tripwire to our combustible Christmas seasons. Robyn’s family has a long tradition of opening every single present on Christmas Eve except for the ones Santa brings small children. Our first Christmas Eve together, we have a long debate. “So, what’s supposed to happen on Christmas Day?” I ask her. “We just look at each other stupidly? No surprises. No gifts. Nothing?” She nods. “Are you ten years old? What’s the difference when you get your gift?” She plays her trump card. She already has a son from a previous marriage. “This is Andrew’s Christmas tradition. We can’t disrupt it. Are you going to try to tell him he can’t open any gifts on Christmas Eve?”
Hmm. In fact, I am.
I talk to Andrew, who is about six. “How would you feel about waiting until Christmas morning to open all your gifts? See, that way, Christmas is more magical. It’s all happening at once.” Andrew nods. “No, I like opening a bunch of presents on Christmas Eve,” he says. “Then Santa brings more on Christmas Day.” This is another argument I’m not going to win. Trying to get a 6-year-old to appreciate the principle of delayed gratification is a dead-end. I’m outvoted and miserable.
So, my tacky disco angel tree-topper is in the back of the closet, our Christmas tree is bedecked with tasteful but boring white lights and Christmas morning has been reduced to nothing more than a fruitless search for batteries to make Andrew’s latest gimmicks function properly. I feel robbed and cheated, like Christmas has been stolen out from under me. “This isn’t Christmas,” I mutter to myself. I’m all pouty and unpleasant sitting barefoot on the couch like a Grinch, which is really not how you want to be on Christmas Day. You want to be one of the Whos down in Whoville singing the incomprehensible song around the barren tree with no gifts. It’s one of those situations where I am acting like an idiot, but can’t seem to stop myself.
“Hey Grinch, go find some nine-volt batteries,” Robyn says to me. But who has nine-volt batteries, those rare, useless, square nine-volt batteries? We don’t have any in the house. I can rattle the junk drawer all I like, which I do for effect. None will shake loose. And no stores are open today. Damn those toy makers, ruining Christmas by making toys that only run on impossible batteries!
Divided by different Christmas traditions and daunted by a lack of batteries, we are finally brought together by a series of uncooperative live Christmas trees. Our first Christmas together we have almost no money to spare for a tree. We go to a lot in Chapel Hill and look around. Every tree we look at seems crazy expensive. “Do you have a particularly festive twig in our price range?” I ask the guy. I tell him our price range. He shrugs and leads us to a Charlie Brown Christmas tree that with a lot of love and imagination could one day grow up to be a full fledged Christmas tree.
Another year we don’t have much vertical space. We’ve measured it out. We also don’t have much money again. So, we get a guy at a lot to saw off part of a damaged tree that is heavily discounted. We figure we can take it back to the house and turn the really damaged side of the tree to the wall. This is a good plan except that the tree wasn’t cut precisely enough and can’t fit into the stand. We jam it in the best we can and lean it against the wall. It’s sad and misshapen. But it’s our Christmas tree. It keeps falling over and shedding on everything, trying to turn brown and die. We keep fixing it, propping it up again and trying to keep it alive even as we curse at it.
One year we give up and get an artificial tree. Is it even Christmas anymore? So many things have been altered, I don’t know. It technically isn’t, but definitely is. Just a different version than the one from my childhood. Ultimately, this business about fusing traditions from different families is not that big a deal. Nothing to get hung up on.
When you have children, you cannot be the child anymore. Your childhood Christmases are gone and can’t be replicated precisely for your children. You have to be a grownup. Marrying a woman with a small child made me realize that I was a kid for far too long. It’s time, maybe far past time, to be a grownup. It’s a moment of illumination that comes upon me early in our marriage as I search for an Allen wrench to open the back of a toy and realize I don’t know what an Allen wrench is.
Christmas is more than trees, angels, lights and when to open presents. It’s about giving and sharing and loving one another. Spending time together. Celebrating the birth of Christ. Everything else is just tinsel and wrapping paper.