Christmas Past

I have spent each of the last four Christmases in a different house.

I do not need to tell you that I am kind of tired of moving.

In 2002, I lived with my parents in the house I grew up in. We’d lived there for nearly 14 years, from the time I was nearly 8. Christmas was virtually identical for every one of those fourteen years. The stockings hung over the chimney every year, neatly hooked over the fireplace on the mantle that was always covered in evergreens and holly. Our Christmas tree was in the same place, in the living room, and was always the same kind of tree. My dad and I would go and pick it out every year, and I’d sing loud Christmas carols in the car while dad would pretend to complain. We bought it from the same guy, at Ed’s trees, and only last year did I discover his name was not, in fact, Ed. That was a traumatizing moment, let me tell you.

My sister and I were not allowed to come downstairs for stockings until everybody was awake. When we were little, it was always us up first, waiting for our parents, and there was always an agreed upon time when we were allowed to get up. I can still picture myself sitting in my bedroom, reading whatever book I was working on and staring at my clock radio every two minutes, willing the time to go faster. Often, I’d sneak into Beth’s room and we’d whisper, trying to guess what was waiting downstairs for us.

Once we got a little older, it was Beth who was impossible to get up. She was the stereotypical teenager, and when I was still young enough to be totally impatient about getting going on Christmas (um, and by young enough, I really mean “until now”, because let’s face it, I’m still no saint on Christmas morning when it comes to the waiting), I’d spend a long time jumping on her bed, trying to wake her up while she moaned and groaned.

Eventually, though, I became a sleeper-inner myself, and it changed. Now, we had to decide on a time when my parents were allowed to wake us up. Dad has been an early riser for as long as we’ve lived in Canada (we joke that he never changed time zones), and he was tired of waiting around all morning for us to wake up. (My sympathies were somewhat limited, obviously, but unfortunately the parents still trumped us.) So we’d get hoisted out of bed and would stumble blearily down the hall, where Dad would inevitably want to take pictures of us at the top of the stairs.

We’d have stockings, and then we’d all eat breakfast, which was always cinnamon buns and fresh squeezed orange juice. Everybody but me drinks coffee, and we all inspect the stocking loot more carefully. Once we’ve all eaten (and it’s always second breakfast for Dad, who inevitably has eaten breakfast four hours before the rest of us get up – he’s like a hobbit sometimes), we all would head back upstairs to get dressed. (Except, again, Dad, who was usually dressed at that point simply because he got bored and getting dressed passed another five minutes of time.)

When she was a teenager, Beth was absolutely evil about this. She’d insist on taking a looong shower, blow drying her hair, and doing her makeup. Now, I have never been one for morning primping. Even when I was working at my more respectable job (not that my current job isn’t respectable, but the dress code is far more laid back), I never took much more than ten minutes to get ready, twenty if I took a shower. I choose my hairstyles with speed in mind and am not much for makeup unless it’s some sort of occasion.

Beth, on the other hand, was a primper. She always had to have her hair done all neatly, and put her makeup on with the usual preciseness that always took an extra twenty minutes on Christmas, and she absolutely revelled in the torture. It was really very evil of her and not very big sisterly at all, so she should consider herself lucky that I still buy her Christmas presents. My parents eventually clued in and started putting something to entertain me in my stocking so I could pass the time while I waited for her.

Then, when everybody was ready and looking respectable, we’d all go back downstairs. The living room was visible from most of the house, and although we weren’t supposed to peek at the tree when we were downstairs for stockings, we always did. It would be piled high with presents, most of which had appeared during the night. (Or, really, before we got up in the morning, since it was a number of years ago that we started going to bed after my parents.) We’d spend a couple of hours opening them, going one at a time and inspecting the spoils quite thoroughly. It was always somewhat of a challenge to see who’d get the last present, although it usually depended on whether we’d asked for something big that year, since that tended to mean fewer presents.

Once presents got done, we’d all loll around and amuse ourselves with them for a few hours. We’d snack on the various food that kicked around the house, not really having a proper lunch but too hungry to wait for dinner. I’d read new books, or watch new movies, or whatever. And until Jamie came into the picture, I never did much of anything on Christmas afternoon. Once Jamie and I got fairly serious, I always spent Christmas afternoon at his house, usually with my sister along as well. Mum and Dad would make dinner – Mum in charge of the turkey, Dad on potato duty, and the time would dwindle by until dinner, which was always at around 4:30.

Christmas dinner does not change in our house. It is turkey, stuffing (and my mother’s stuffing is to die for – god, it’s good, and now I’m hungry just thinking about it), roast potatos (my favourite kind!), gravy, cranberry sauce, and vegetables. Nothing fancy, nothing unusual, but always good. We’d all have crackers, and whenever they got popped you had to wear the stupid hat and read your joke out loud in both French and English. (It amuses me that the French jokes never have anything to do with the English ones. The French ones are usually better, although that might be because our French is generally mediocre.)

It was never a very exciting Christmas, but it was always the same, and I liked it that way.

In 2003, we moved to a new house in November. By Christmas, we were sort of settled in but not entirely, and it felt weird. Most things were still the same – stockings on the mantle, tree in the living room, but my bedroom was in the basement. No more sitting at the top of the stairs, waiting for Beth. Beth wasn’t living at home any more, and our new house didn’t have a bedroom for her, so she slept in my bed, which was our first mistake that year. We have been terrible at that our entire lives, so I’m not sure what made us think that doing it when we were twice the size was a good idea.

It was a peculiar Christmas that year. I fought with Beth over spending too much time with Jamie’s family, and for the first time I wanted more out of Christmas than the same thing I’d always had. I was part of two families, and Christmas was no longer an uncomplicated assumption. The dinner was the same, we all wore the hats, and things on the outside seemed just right, but it was as if we all knew that by leaving our childhood home, we’d left the way Christmas used to be behind as well.

Last year, I didn’t live at home any more. I had my own apartment, with Erin, and we made our own traditions. We had our own little tree – the first real tree she’d ever had – purchased from the same guy at Ed’s Trees. We put up lights and strung cards along the walls. She baked cookies, and we’d sit together on the couch and talk about Christmas Past. She too had felt the pull of two families, and we sympathized together over trying to balance the past with the future. It was fun and easy and totally devoid of any stress. We took it in turns to move the advent calendar and left each other cheery notes on the white board. We’d watch the fireplace channel together and make fun of it while both secretly loving it. We’d have people over to watch Christmas movies, and I’d try to surreptitiously sniffle while Erin handed me tissues, rolling her eyes at my total inability to hold it together in the face of touching Christmas messages. (I read The Grinch in a program at work last week, and I nearly cried while reading it to 15 kids. That was kind of embarrassing. But I think my Christmas movie thing is probably a whole other entry.) We knew it was a once-off, the only Christmas we’d spend as roommates, but we enjoyed ourselves almost more because of it. It was a Christmas that I could spend in the present, without worrying about how things had always been in the past or how they ought to be in the future.

I went to my parents’ for Christmas, and we had a good time. Beth had moved away from Edmonton by then, so it was a bit more of a novelty to see her. The whole thing was marred somewhat by the near-death experience of my cat at 2AM on Christmas morning, but I think the fact that she didn’t die made us all a little more grateful to be there. It was a peculiar Christmas again, but that was because it was almost too tidy. We were all nice to each other, we were all easy-going about everything, and it seemed almost too good to be true. The futon I slept on was less thrilling, and by the end of Boxing Day I headed back to the apartment, content with both my non-dead cat and the Christmas that had been as it was supposed to be.

Still, when I got back to my apartment, I was surprised by how happy I was to see our little tree with its motley assortment of cheap ornaments, the hand-made wreath on the door, the cards from both of our friends (and Erin’s students) mingling on the walls. Erin and I sat on the couch again, trading stories about our holidays and both being reminded of how happy we were to be together. Even though we’d spent the holiday itself apart, we’d created our own little Christmas in our apartment, and we were happy to be back there, where a good weekend consisted of non-stop Buffy and Chinese food for dinner. We ate each other’s leftovers and smiled at each other, knowing that no matter how crazy our families drove us, we had our own place to come back to.

And now, I face a fourth Christmas in a fourth house. This time, it’s Jamie that I’m planning with. It’s early yet, and we don’t have a tree or many decorations. The lights are shining down on the front yard, the product of several hours work on Jamie’s part. The advent calendar hangs in the hallway, and we take it in turns to move it along. (Although I was too lazy to buy chocolate for it this year.) My first Christmas card sits on the mantle, and bags of decorations and presents are strewn across the floor. New stockings, bought especially for this house, wait to be hung, with our old stockings still at our parents’ houses, waiting patiently for us to arrive on Christmas morning. We will spend the day with our families, but for the first time I will not sleep at my parents’ house on Christmas Eve. I will wake up here, with Jamie next to me, and I will have to get dressed before I open my stocking with my sister. I will have to decide which ornaments to bring back here with me, and which ones will stay on my parents’ tree. I will begin my own traditions, here in my house, and set the tone for Christmases to come. We are taking the traditions from our pasts, finding ways to combine them, choosing compromises and arguing over silly little things that mean a lot when they have 24 years of history to them.

But it’s funny. Although I will eat the same breakfast with my family that I always do, and will open presents the same way, and we’ll all stuff ourselves with roast potatos and wear silly hats at dinner, it’s not the Christmases of my childhood that I am longing for as I being to prepare my new house for the season. It’s my funny little one-time Christmas that is staying with me. As Jamie and I plan and discuss and organize, it’s sitting around watching Christmas movies with Erin that I miss. It’s coming home to the unmistakeable smell of baking and a laughing roommate that I am wishing for. It’s knowing that Christmas doesn’t come with any baggage, any expectations, that it can just be what we want it to be, that is what feels wrong about this year. I love the turkey, and the stockings, and the fat fluffy tree bought with my dad. But I didn’t expect to love the Buffy wrapping marathons, and the utter peace of sitting in my own apartment with everything dark but the Christmas lights hanging on our balcony, and the endless, endless laughter. Because while I look forward to many Christmas Futures with Jamie, the Christmas Past that haunts me is not the one I expected. And in some ways, it is bittersweet. Because I know that we could never recreate it – it was the knowledge of the one-off that made us so able to be carefree about our Christmas. It was a piecemeal celebration in our little apartment. But it was a happy one.

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