And even though it’s just a dream, the panic and confusion feel genuine. After all, it’s impossible to go more than a few blocks in my Los Angeles neighborhood without stumbling over a Christmas tree lot, erected immediately after Thanksgiving when the pumpkins have been cleared away, before it returns to life as an empty space, awaiting a commercial boom so it can become yet another ugly boutique. To ‘forget’ something that’s staring me in the face must be a sign that I’m losing my mind – or just my youthful enthusiasm.
From the outside, my anxiety over yuletide celebration is perplexing – after all, half of my family’s Jewish. But while there’s photographic evidence to suggest I celebrated Christmas with my father’s Catholic family as a baby, the only Christmases I remember have taken place at my house with my Jewish relatives. Instead of prayers or a round of caroling, we gather in the living room, eating sugar cookies shaped like reindeer, attempting to shoot balls of discarded wrapping paper into trash bags held open like basketball hoops while discussing various ailments.
Yet despite this steadfast tradition, the holiday season approaches and I toss and turn, plagued by the same nightmare: the 25th arrives and we still don’t have a tree. The consequences of this scenario are always dire. It’s a tragedy on par with Macbeth. It’s the end of the world as I know it.
Except last year. 2010 is the first year I sleep the uninterrupted sleep of a twenty-five-year-old woman for the entire month of December. It’s the year I decide not to open a present on Christmas Eve. It’s the year my mother wakes before I do on Christmas morning.
It’s official: my childhood is dead.
Despite the reoccurring nightmare, we have never actually forgotten to buy a Christmas tree. Though it seems to take longer and longer for me to find my holiday spirit every year, two weeks prior to the 25th (no sooner, or it will dry out), my mother, father, and I go hunting for the perfect Noble Fir. We used to buy our trees from the railway yard downtown, following up the purchase with steaming taquitos from a little hole in the wall on the corner of Olvera Street closest to Union Station. It used to be an adventure, an outing. Now we buy our trees from Home Depot in the night, after we all arrive home from yet another day of work.
Dad wrestles the tree in the front door, to the consternation of the dogs, and with my help, leverages the twelve-footer into the tree stand. I begin pulling boxes down from the den closet: three large boxes of ornaments; one spool of white lights; a plastic tub full of stockings and stocking holders; assorted snowmen-shaped decorations for the mantle. I try not to think about what a pain it will be to put it all back.
Once the tree is wrapped in lights, Mom and I unpack dozens of ornaments from their haphazard tissue paper nests. There must be over a hundred.
The ornaments come from all over the world, little reminders of places we’ve been or things we love. There’s the red apple from our 1991 trip to New York, and the saxophone-playing koala angel from the Sydney Opera House in Australia. Mom went a little overboard in Hawaii, returning from our Maui vacation with a Santa in a straw hat clutching a pineapple, a Hawaiian-print, star-shaped Santa Claus, and a pressed Hawaiian t-shirt. Instead of the more traditional angel or star, a stuffed moose graces the top of our tree, a wink and a nod to the (ultimately fruitless) search for moose on our trip to the Canadian Rockies.
The ornaments don’t just represent family vacations, though. Some, like the clay figure of a little brunette girl and the Fimo shapes of two dogs with a bone, remind me of once-annual harvest festivals and my first dog, Sofi. The glass mermaid and ballerina came from the Oriental Trading Co. catalogue we used to receive on a monthly basis. There once was a blown glass rocking horse as well, but it broke around the same time that the wooden rocking horse my nana bought me one Christmas was sent to the attic.
Each member of the family is represented on the tree with a reoccurring theme: my dad is visible in the Chicago White Sox baseball, snowman, and glass baseball cap, lately joined by tributes to the Chicago Bears. Mom’s love of snowmen has exploded all over the branches, and I share my obsession with Harry Potter by hanging a pewter character holding a potion bottle near a hand-painted cloth mermaid that’s graced the tree since I was a little girl. The herb used for the mermaid’s hair used to smell sweet, and if I hold it real close to my nose, I can still catch a whiff of the spicy scent.
Cloth and plastic ornaments hang at the bottom, placing the least breakable in the line of fire from my dog’s enthusiastic tail. He eats one of my handmade clay ornaments after mistaking it for gingerbread, but despite having to take added precautions with him around, I step back and admire my work.
The tree will never look like one of the trees on display in a department store or a catalogue. No sleek elegance or monochromatic design. The ornaments are all different shapes, sizes, materials, colors, and quality. But every time I think of leaving a particular ornament off the tree, I remember why we bought it in the first place, how long its been in the box, and though it may stand out as ‘tacky’ or ‘garish,’ or even slightly damaged, it gets a place of honor with all the rest.
December 1st used to herald the start of the season, a cue to pop ‘Twisted Christmas’ into the tape deck and drive around with my parents to look at the good lighting displays. It meant opening one present on Christmas Eve before going out to dinner, and waking up at three, then four, then five a.m. Christmas morning, waiting for seven to roll around so I could wake the whole house.
The morning, before the hordes arrive, has always been my favorite time. Once the clock officially chimes seven, I can wake my parents, and scramble to the living room to wait as they pull themselves together, start a pot of coffee, and stumble in to open the stockings.
I miss the magic, never knowing what I would wake up to find on Christmas morning. It’s never been about Jesus, or peace on earth, or holy nights, and maybe that’s the problem. Without something to believe in – whether it’s an overweight jolly elf in red velour or somebody’s savior – Christmas is like any other family get-together.
Under the rules of the house, 2010 is my final year of being a “kid.” After the age of twenty-five, I have the option to join the adult gift exchange, but for that one final Yule I get the privileges afforded the young’ns, which really only amounts to one or two extra presents from second cousins.
The gifts, minus the few that stay under the tree for the purpose of presentation, are deposited in the den. They take over the tiny room, turning the couch into a sea of snowmen and Santa Claus. In the afternoon, Aunt Diana and the men of the family will take over the den to watch sports.
I give my cousins a hard time about abandoning the family to watch basketball. It’s bad enough that Eric and Andy leave early to have Christmas dinner with their dad’s family, so even though they laugh at my scolding, I’m not really joking.
‘I can’t believe you’d pick basketball over the pleasure of my company,’ is not as facetious as it sounds. I’m silently begging for allies, feeling that if I have to be an adult, so do they.
When I was younger, the thought of reaching the Age of No Return was horrifying. Becoming an officially labeled adult – on Christmas – seemed cruel. The rules have always been clear: 25, married, or with children and you can no longer think of yourself as a kid.
Except that I haven’t really been a kid in years. At some point, against my will, I became Informed – and it all started with Santa Claus. Once I figured out that if my parents filled each other’s stockings it stood to reason they filled mine too, it was all downhill. The bubble burst, and I was forced to see that Christmas was really no more special than Thanksgiving, than summer picnics, than Passover. In fact, it was less special, because it meant less.
Now, instead of sneaking off to my room to watch my newest Disney DVD, I lurk in the background of the adult conversations, which center around one of four topics: illnesses, sports, food, or child-rearing. The kids of the family are clueless to it all, and I envy their innocence. They don’t know what a mammogram is. They don’t take over the den to watch the Lakers lose. They’ve probably never even heard of Top Chef. Instead, Madison tears open her Bratz™ Nail Salon for immediate use and her brother Brandon chases my dog through the house while Charlie scoots by on a toy airplane.
Even the cousins who are no longer children seem detached from the stress that permeates the rest of us. Somehow, they’re able to fall asleep in the middle of the day, napping on the couches in midst of debates on the safety of Lipitor, no cares in the world. Maybe it’s because they’re Jewish, and so this day has never meant Santa Claus or magic reindeer to them. Christmas Day is what it’s always been, and they came to terms with that years ago.
I wish I could pinpoint the exact moment when Christmas went from being a joy to being a chore, something to get through instead of something to anticipate. Maybe it was when my presents stopped coming in boxes and started coming in envelopes. Or when I stopped wanting things because I could afford to buy them myself. Maybe it was the year the Disney Channel stopped airing The Care Bears Nutcracker every day in December.
I can’t help wondering how different the day would be if I believed in Jesus. Would having that faith sustain me? Would any of it shield me from the realities of the adult world? I loved the Christmas of my youth because it was a dream-day. It existed outside of time and space, a day when my parents didn’t have to work, when someone broke into our house via the chimney to eat cookies, when everyone came together to eat, drink, and be merry.
Now it’s just a reminder of what I’ve lost – who I’ve lost – and feeling ancient at twenty-five. I’m too young to be such a Scrooge, but there’s no cure for growing up, for recognizing that no matter how much you want to believe, there’s no such thing as magic.
Except there’s still a little bit of magic left in the morning. When it’s quiet in the neighborhood, and the dogs are chewing on rawhide sticks, when the coffee percolates, and I distribute the stockings, then the presents, which bear silly labels from the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. When I open my gifts from my parents – who always know exactly what to get me – and I watch them open the results of several months of planning and execution and see their faces light up. There’s still magic there, and I’ll hold onto that for as long as I can.