This morning I was in the kitchen cleaning and making coffee while my daughter sat at the dining room table drawing. She was asking me about my Christmas when I was a little girl. She'd forgotten about how I'd told her last year that I did not get to have Christmas as a child, or any other holidays due to my mother's religion. She asked, "Didn't you get a birthday cake? Didn't anyone even tell you happy birthday? What about a Christmas tree? Didn't Santa come to your house?" So I started telling her some little things I remembered.
On my birthday every year, I'd wake up and think, "I'm a year older now." I'd go to the kitchen and pour myself some cereal. No one said happy birthday. No, there was never a cake, or candles. No presents and no parties. It was just another day and when I went to bed that night I'd remind myself that I was older... 7, not 6. Or 8, not 7.
No, Santa didn't come to my house. My mother didn't let him.
I remember one time when I was about 6 or 7, when the art teacher at school said she had a special project for us to do. Everyone was excited as she passed out the red construction paper and big puffy white cotton balls. There was a picture of Santa's face on the paper, and we were to glue the cotton balls on his beard and the rim of his hat. The kids were jumping up and down, excited for the holiday project. I remember how sick I felt in the pit of my stomach. I was so worried. I was not allowed to make pictures of Santa ("Santa" is just "Satan" with the letters switched around, my mother said) but if I didn't do the art project I would get a zero. I was a shy and quiet child, self-conscious and embarrassed as I approached my art teacher as quietly as I could and whispered to her, "I'm not allowed." Thank goodness for her kind response, as she went to get a sheet of blue paper, drew a snowman on it, and happily told me to glue the cotton balls on it to make snow instead. "You're allowed to do snowmen, aren't you?" Yes, I was. Kids did notice mine was different, but at least I wasn't getting a zero.
There were the times I went to school when I knew in the afternoon there would be a Christmas party in each classroom. First grade, second grade, third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade... every year I went to school and had a usual morning aside from the other children being filled with anticipation. And then, suddenly around 1:00 Santa would burst into the classroom with a hearty "HO HO HO!" and a bag of toys. All the children would leap from their desks and run to greet him as the teacher put on Christmas music. This was my cue to go out in the hallway, past Santa and the joyful children, and sit on a hard classroom chair, staring at the art-covered wall across from me and listening to the sounds of happiness coming from every class. Mothers would walk past me, bringing Christmas cookies and gingerbread houses to the children. Santa would sometimes stop to speak to me on his way out, but I'd avert my eyes and hang my head. I'd pray and ask Jehovah to be proud of me for doing the right thing. I'd sit there for an hour while my classmates unwrapped presents from Santa and from the class gift exchange, and then as everyone went to get their coats and hats to go home, I'd get up and join them. Their faces had hints of colored frosting and they clutched candy canes in their fists as they chattered about what they'd be getting for Christmas. They'd go home to their decorated houses and lit Christmas trees and wrapped presents and I'd go home to a mother eating potato chips in front of the TV in the decidedly unfestive-looking living room.
Of course, I didn't tell my daughter all these details. I did tell her about what the other kids got. I did tell her I never had a tree, got a present, made an ornament, made Christmas cookies. And although I feel like I've been "over" it for a long, long time and am very thankful for the joy I have every year with my own children, I suddenly felt tears welling up in my eyes for that little girl who stood quietly and stared at her shoes whenever any strangers in the store would say "Merry Christmas" to her. Sometimes they'd even ask "what do you want Santa to bring you this year? Have you been good?" And as my mother had taught me, I'd respond, "We don't celebrate." And I'd keep staring at my shoes.
For a long time, I think I was trying to sort of make up for all of that by going really overboard with the Christmas baking. Yeah, I know it is not all about the cookies, but for many years I would bake and bake and bake, and I'd indulge in as much as I wanted. I could have it now... all of it. But you know, eating all those Christmas cookies as an adult didn't take away how I felt as a child. It didn't fix anything or make it better. What made it better was finally talking about it, mainly here on my blog but also to trusted friends, and acknowledging the pain that I stuffed down as a child. What helps me now is knowing I *can* celebrate, not only Christmas but anything I want. When we make cookies and gingerbread houses, I don't need to eat them anymore. I don't need to have a candy cane and a frosted sugar cookie to make me feel better now. I enjoy baking with the kids, we have fun together, and the experience is enough to fill me. I do not need to fill myself with actual cookies to be okay.
I am very thankful for all I enjoy with my children. Some of the happiest moments for me have been choosing gifts for them, decorating the tree with handmade ornaments, putting out the porcelain nativity set with my daughter carefully cradling baby Jesus in her hands, hanging the stockings on the fireplace, putting up garland, going to a Christmas concert at a church, seeing a live nativity together, making crafts, and visiting Santa and his (real) reindeer. The baking is fun too, but it's not all about the food anymore. It's about time together, traditions, and love.
Deck The Halls
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