TRADITION steers so much of what we do at this time of year that it’s easy to forget the importance of making fresh memories.
Two of the best Christmases I’ve had were remarkable because they broke from the norm. They were Dec. 25ths that let us off the annual hook of hard work, obligations and social anxiety.
Stanley and I were living in Calgary for the first one, and had no children yet. Ordinarily, our routine there was Christmas Eve at his dad’s, an ambitious meal where the Ukrainian rule of serving 12 meatless dishes was observed. It always began at the ungodly hour of 4 in the afternoon, because you customarily wait for the first star to appear in the sky before breaking the your Christmas-Eve-day fast. There was also some idea of throwing wheat porridge up to the ceiling to see if it stuck. Thankfully, we never seemed to actually do that since it sounded like a pretty cracked idea.
The meal was a huge production for a crowd, as always, with my hardworking father-in-law – an excellent cook -- at the helm. He was invariably wiped out and grumpy the next morning. Generous family friends would take over to host Christmas dinner, inviting not just Stanley and his family, but also any friends of ours who had no plans. These kind people must have decided to depart from the norm one year, because the invitation never came.
We were surprised, but not offended. Stanley’s dad ended up being invited at the last minute and offered us the turkey he’d planned to roast for immediate family. That left just Stanley, his brother Arnold and me to cook Christmas dinner any way we wanted, and serve it, for once, whenever, and with whatever, we liked.
What a great night that was; for the first time, we were in charge of a Christmas celebration and only had ourselves to please. There were plenty of leftovers to use up – homemade perogies and vegetables galore – so there wasn’t much work to do. I seem to remember watching the movie of A Child’s Christmas in Wales on TV while the brothers did the heavy lifting.
Stanley and Arnold went full Cajun on the bird, loading it with spices that would never have been allowed by a larger crowd hell-bent on reprising their Christmases past. Then the three of us shared a bottle of good champagne and Cajun turkey in their dad’s cluttered kitchen, without the fancy napkins or candles or place-cards that I ordinarily consider to be indispensable.
Happy and fully sated, we went our separate ways fairly early. It was a balmy night, and Stanley and I met up with a single friend who has always kept his Christmas with his family minimal. The three of us sought out, then wandered around, a festive light display. Arnold probably dropped in on friends for Christmas dessert and post-prandial goodwill, but maybe he just went home and watched TV. The whole event was pleasant and peaceful and angst-free.
Some 25 years later, after many a relaxed Yuletide with my parents in Sechelt, the holidays were coming upon us once more, but my mum and dad had passed away. We realized how badly we would miss them. Sensory elements that had spelled Christmas to us for years – like the scent of a blazing wood stove and the snowy mound of cloud that often settled, snow-like, over Sechelt inlet on Christmas morning – would be heartbreakingly absent. We would be four people hunched sadly over our bird, remembering how my turkey-mad dad once gobbled his serving up so fast that he landed in St. Mary’s Hospital, and how my mum once read me poems from her new book by Seamus Heaney while I did the Christmas dishes.
The idea of spending the season without them was simply unbearable, so we splurged and went to Puerto Vallarta. It’s great to spend Christmas in a tropical spot if that’s not what you’re used to; the trip itself is the gift, full of sunshine and adventures. Christmas stockings, if any, can just contain souvenirs. At a beachside restaurant on Dec. 25th our kids ordered the kitchen’s last two turkey dinners, and Stanley and I ate something Mexican and enjoyed the bliss of a starry night.
This year, again, we’ll have an odd celebration. Our daughter Petunia is working both Christmas Eve and Christmas night at her restaurant job, so while most of the North Shore is mainlining gravy, we’ll lounge around with our new books and CDs and set our sights on a Boxing Day feast. We’ll have a few guests, and a puppy wreaking havoc. We’re in a transitional period, with new traditions to be built in years to come, and I don’t mind at all.
Best of the season to you and yours.