by Nancy McDaniel

What a curious Christmas this last one was. I didn’t think it all mattered so much to me, but I guess it did.

It’s All About Traditions for Me
I’m not religious. I don’t go to church any more. I believe in something but I don’t even know if I believe in God. So for me, personally, Christmas isn’t about religion. Of course I know it is for millions of people and I respect that. But for me, Christmas is about family and dear friends and children and caring and kindness. And being together with people you love. For me, Christmas has always been about traditions. It’s about the whole thing.

It Was Always The Walnut Room
When I was a child, I loved to go see Santa Claus at Marshall Field’s State Street store (back then, it was just Marshall Field’s. The Store. Field’s.) I think this must have been nearly every Chicago-area child’s tradition at Christmas. Maybe even as much as Santa, I loved seeing Aunt Holly and Uncle Mistletoe at their Cozy Cloud Cottage. We even had ornaments made in their likeness, complete with granny glasses. And we always had lunch under The (Giant, Beautiful, Amazing) Tree in the Walnut Room; for my part of the ritual, I always had chicken pot pie. (We even had lunch –that would have been ham croquettes – with the Easter Bunny in the Walnut Room. It seems as though all good things happened in the Walnut Room when you were a suburban Chicago child – these were big semi-annual pilgrimages into The City).

Shop Till You Drop
I loved helping Daddy shop for Mother. And helping Mom shop for Daddy too (I was an only child so this too was part of the ritual.) I’ll never forget the one time that Mom and I were shopping and I heard a distinctive cough (which I know now was a smoker’s cough but I just thought of it as ” Daddy’s cough”). I asked my mother, “What’s Daddy doing in this store? He’s supposed to be at work.” Mother said that of course it wasn’t Daddy, but sure enough, it turned out to be Daddy after all, sneaking around to buy us more presents. Busted, Pop!

I remember that I used to fondly await opening the package from FAO Schwarz, which was my dad’s favorite store when he went to New York on business. (And it breaks my heart to think they may soon no longer be around – what a magical place.) He used to always bring me tiny Steiff stuffed animals from his various trips. I loved them, and, even more, the fact that he seemed to be thinking of me even when he was away on business

Seek and Ye Shall Find..
I was an impossibly good child, but I still did what I suppose all children must do: skulked around looking to see where my presents were hidden. One year it was under the sweet little ruffled skirt of the vanity bench in the guestroom. (Yes, and my mother found out I had seen them. She was not amused.)

John Singer Sargent, Eat Your Heart Out
One year, when I was about 10, not a particularly attractive age for me, my father decided to commission an oil painting of me as my mother’s Christmas gift (the rationale for this is beyond my imagination, even today. I guess it was the “in” gift in the suburbs in the late 1950s. Why I’ll never know.) My dad made up a story for why we had to go off on our own for a full day one summer Saturday, so we could go downtown for the photograph from which the portrait would be painted. I begged my mom to “set” my hair in pincurls and I remember that she couldn’t figure out why we were going to so much trouble for me to look good to go to a baseball game (our ploy) with my dad.

Anyway, on Christmas Eve, after Mom and I were asleep in our beds, Daddy took down the painting over the fireplace mantle and hung ME up for Mom to see first thing on Christmas morning (I have to mention that, even before airbrushing probably was invented, the silver braces magically didn’t appear on my teeth in the portrait. But my hair really wasn’t at its best – sorry Mom.) She seemed thrilled; now that I can look back objectively, I can’t imagine why. It’s truly a dreadful, if quite accurate, rendition of a gawky overweight, late 50s era pre-teen. But mother love is blind. (Another PostScript, this painting is in now a crate in my basement. About 20 years ago, I asked my dad if I could have a framed piece of needlepoint, which my grandmother had done. He said I could only have it if I took The Portrait as well. I always thought it would be funny to hang it in my house to scare my dates. I wonder if eBay wants it?)

Cholesterol For Everyone!
Another tradition I loved and still miss is Daddy’s Christmas morning breakfast. After opening our Christmas stockings, we’d break for breakfast before The Real Presents. Somewhat improbably for a suburban family in the North, Daddy would fry thick round slices of corn meal mush which we would not think tasted good, but it did. (However, I also loved the wacky lunches that Daddy concocted on Saturdays: canned salmon on crackers, fried chicken livers, fried oysters – choose one. Weird, huh? But I loved it.)

The Late Teens and Twenties
Fast forward to 1965. Another favorite Christmas memory was going to Midnight Mass at the Episcopal Church with the first boy I ever loved. Denny, his mom and dad and little brother and I would all go together. Everything was magic about it – the scripture, the music, the flowers, the songs, even though Denny couldn’t carry a tune in the bucket (how many people do you know that they asked NOT to be in the choir?). It made me feel like I understood the Meaning of Christmas. I was in love. There were probably gentle snowflakes and a full moon. All was right with the world.

Several years later, before I was married, a man I was newly seeing sent me a corsage to wear to Christmas Eve Mass . The card said it was from Bilbo Baggins, because this man taught me to love The Hobbit. I smiled my way through the service, probably thinking distinctly unholy thoughts.

A couple years later, I got married and Christmas changed once again. Two families now, two Christmases, two Christmas traditions. Christmas Eve was spent with Jack’s Swiss-German family. A raucous affair with lots of people, lots of drinking, food and laughter. We always had a lot of fun together.

Then we’d go off to be with my dad and stepmom the next morning. This was a much more sedate, restrained affair; we had to behave ourselves. An uncomfortable aura encircled my father and my husband. I was generally pretty glad when it was over because the stress was palpable.

The Club
Sometime after I was divorced, a new tradition began: Christmas Eve dinner at the country club with my father and stepmom. Sometimes there were a few other assorted relatives but often just the three of us. My favorite parts were not the dinner (though I always loved the potatoes cut in the shape of mushrooms and deep-fried. I thought that they were very inventive.) It was the funny old men who wandered around singing Christmas carols by request – the best one was Feliz Navidad, a bit out of place at a WASPy country club, but fun to try to sing along.

My truly favorite part was the joy of seeing the little children all dressed up in their beautiful holiday clothes: little girls in plaid satin dresses with bows or red velvet dresses trimmed with lace, their sturdy little toddler legs snugged into white tights and buckled into shiny new black patent leather Mary Jane shoes. Little boys in green velvet shortalls with white shirts and bow ties, looking cute, if distinctly uncomfortable. Their eyes were always wide and bright, eager to get home to wait for Santa to arrive. (In this town of privilege, there would be never be any doubt that Santa would arrive with lots and lots of presents. There were no worries about empty stockings or hungry bellies here.)

I’d spend the night at my parents’ house and, funnily enough, I’d still sleep fitfully, waiting for Santa to arrive, as he always had. In part I guess I was listening for those reindeer hooves and a faint ho ho ho. Sadly (for me and for my dad), I no longer left out a plate of cookies and a glass of milk for Santa as I used to do. (My father always preferred Christmas to Easter, as I left only carrots and celery for the Easter Bunny.)

We’d open presents in the morning, after a big breakfast (somewhere during the intervening years, fried corn meal mush got replaced by ordinary bacon and eggs, but still the smell and sound of bacon frying takes me back.) Sometimes my stepbrother, his wife and their two young daughters would come over. That was fun because having children around made the day much more special.

No More Father Christmas
Fast-forward another few years. Daddy died some 16 years ago. Christmas has never been the same for me since then. Thought I’ve long since adjusted to Life without Daddy, I didn’t think I (or my stepmom) have ever adjusted to Christmas Without Daddy. Nor do I think we ever will.

We usually go through the motions – Christmas Eve dinner at The Club, presents in the morning, a big dinner at home or my aunt’s or my cousin’s. It’s often a bit forced. It’s almost as though no one has the heart for it, with Daddy gone and no little children to share the day and make it magic.

New Traditions
What I have grown to love about Christmas is having a Pre or Post Christmas celebration with my dearest friends who live in the Milwaukee area. We somewhat extravagantly shop for each other. They always have the biggest pile of gifts waiting for them under my tree. And I always have a giant pile under theirs. We spoil each other because we mean the world to each other. When their son was little, and they lived three hours away from me, we would meet “in the middle” at a hotel for brunch and oceans of presents. It was wonderful. It still is. But this year, we had to wait until January to celebrate. Because this year was different.

Not a Martha Christmas
My stepmother had big surgery in June and although she’ll be fine, it’s a slow recuperation. Because of this, her stamina for shopping, wrapping, decorating and such just isn’t quite there yet. She decided to leave for Florida on Christmas Day because her granddaughter was being married a couple of days later.

I returned just before Thanksgiving from nearly five weeks in my beloved southern Africa and had only a month to get ready for two art shows, write and mail out a Christmas letter, as well as buy/wrap/mail presents…all before leaving Christmas Day on yet another African journey.

So I didn’t decorate much – a couple of Santa items placed strategically around the living room, a holiday light bulb in the front porch light, five African ornaments on my big hibiscus plant, an evergreen, but ribbon-less, wreath on the front door. Pretty spare, pretty dreary stuff.

My mom and I decided to exchange gift certificates this year, so that neither of us would have to shop. We even specified which stores we’d like ours to come from. I put hers in a box and wrapped it. There were no oohs and ahs of surprise when we opened our gifts, just murmurs of appreciation.

My mom, aunt, two cousins and a niece and her roommate met for Christmas Eve lunch at a little coffee shop, you know the kind that has a zillion kinds of omelets and thick sliced Greek toast and waitresses that call you “morecoffeehoney?” It’s a great place for breakfast, but, not surprisingly, not so wonderful for Christmas Eve lunch. I had a Philly chicken sandwich on pita bread. We attempted conversation: we tried to talk about movies few of us had seen and mostly disagreed about, TV commercials we did or didn’t like (ditto to “and mostly disagreed about”) and how Mom and Aunt needed to buy sandwiches to take on the airplane with them on Christmas Day, “just in case” there was no food served and/or the flight was delayed. Mercifully, what type of sandwiches to buy was not discussed at length.

I drove back home after lunch. On Christmas Eve, I made myself some pasta, watched TV, drank a good bit of wine and didn’t wake up listening for reindeer hooves or the hohos of Mr. Claus.

On Christmas Day, I opened some presents that had arrived in the mail from friends, finished packing for Kenya, sent emails, and ran out to an afternoon movie where I ate popcorn and wept at Jack Nicholson/Warren Schmidt’s heartbreaking letters to Ndugo. I came home, made an omelet, called some friends, showered, got dressed and went to the airport – early.

It’s not that I was depressed, although I am sure it sounds like I was. Really I wasn’t. It’s just that I finally realized the traditions matter way more to me than I realized. I wish I could bring back Christmas passed.