Christmastime at my house growing up was like a live-action Norman Rockwell painting. We had the candles in every window, the Spode Christmas-tree china on the table, the old-fashioned choo-choo train doing loops around the glittering, angel-topped tree, even the bony-elbowed, freckle-faced kids. And, as in most families, the kids were the featured act. Every Christmas Eve, my sisters and I would sit on the fireplace and take turns reading ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. We’d wear matching Santa-themed pajamas and pose on the stairs for pictures in the morning – our golden retriever too – before tearing into the living room to see what the big guy brought us.
Fast forward 20 years and we were still doing this exact thing – only my mom would buy our men matching pajamas, too! My husband, Nick, never understood why I allowed myself to be infantilized like this (my mother still signed her packages, “Love, Santa.”) but, despite my eye rolling, I was completely complicit. It just wouldn’t be Christmas if my sisters and I didn’t fight over who got to read the last line: “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!” These kids-centric traditions were as much a part of our holiday as sipping my dad’s hot apple cider (which we spiked with rum when we were in our 20s). Christmas is for kids, and we were the kids. Except we weren’t anymore, and it took having a child of my own to realize this.
Every mom has that moment when the fact that she is actually someone’s mother hits her hard. This I’m-a-bona-fide-adult realization has nothing to do with carrying a child for nine months or giving birth; usually it comes much later. Mine came last Christmas Eve at my parents’ house. We had just finished dinner, and Alex, my then two-year-old, told me he wanted to go home “right now” so “Christmas” could come. He didn’t want to miss Santa and the reindeer and desperately wanted to put out Santa’s cookies (mostly because I’d promised him he could eat one). It was still early, but I looked at his hopeful little face and realized that by clinging to my own childhood traditions, I was preventing him from starting his own. It was just the prompting I needed to put down my cider and say goodnight to my parents – and goodbye to the role I’d been playing for my whole life. I grabbed the candy cane striped pajamas my mom had just distributed, skipped the annual reading and headed home, Christmas cord officially cut, my sisters harrumphing and eye rolling in my wake, my parents looking stunned and slightly betrayed.
Our house was quiet and empty when we walked in, but we flipped on the tree lights, lit a fire, cranked up a Charlie Brown Christmas, and soon it started to feel more like Christmas Eve. Alex ate three of Santa’s cookies – before I cut him off – and passed on the carrot sticks we left for the reindeer. Then I tucked him in and read ‘Twas the Night before Christmas to him three times. He fell asleep with a smile on his face. When I came downstairs, my husband was sweating and cursing, trying to assemble Elmo’s kitchen. The screwdriver had been passed – we were now the Christmas Eve parents, struggling with the gifts, taking a bite out of a cookie to make it look like Santa had been there, getting the tree just so. We set out the Flip video and fantasized about how our little man was going to freak when he saw his Elmo kitchen, unwrapped, with an oversized red bow stuck on top. It was exciting in a whole different way.
Christmas morning was much calmer – and less matchy, matchy – than I was used to. I had tried to get Alex into his Christmas pajamas, but he wanted to wear the ones with the footballs. So there we were, Alex in his football fuzzies, Nick in his boxers and me still in my candy cane pjs. We were hardly a Norman Rockwell painting, but we were together, our little family of three, and we were trying.
This year we have another stocking hanging from the mantle – for our baby girl, Nora. She’s another child to enchant; we just have to figure out how. We’re in that strange place where we want to start our own traditions, but it feels daunting and a little awkward, especially given how high my mother set the bar. Now that I have some perspective, though, I have come to terms with the fact that Christmas for my kids isn’t going to be the same as it was for me. As amazing as it was to live in a home that looked like Santa’s Workshop for the duration of the holiday season, I am way too much of a clutterphobe to go there. Fake snow? Choking hazard! Christmas-themed toilet paper holders? Insane! And I’m not even sure about the stockings (I like the way they look, but do I really have to stuff them with gifts?). Every year my mother would individually wrap chapstick and emery boards and mini flashlights and a whole lot of trinkety things that we didn’t need but still loved. I don’t know that I’m that dedicated.
Still, I love my newly central role as a Christmas mom. I want to bake Christmas cookies with the kids and decorate them with colorful sprinkles and put out a beautiful, impressive meal for Christmas Eve, one that features, say, Brussels sprouts with pancetta instead of the green-bean casserole I grew up eating. I love being the mom, the one taking the photos instead of posing for them. Maybe we’ll start going to church on Christmas Eve instead of rushing everyone to mass after opening presents. Who knows? For now, our traditions – i.e., the things we’ve done for the past three holidays – consist of buying our tree at Home Depot and listening to The Vince Guaraldi Trio on repeat every single day from December 1 till the new year. We’re not exactly winning any points for originality, but it’s a start.