December, and time here in Canada to start thinking about the holidays. While we acknowledge the need for ritual and gathering in the shortest, darkest days of the year, Christmas is not a holiday BD and I usually celebrate, for a number of reasons. Neither of us are conventionally religious, and therefore the Christian reasons for the holiday are not relevant to us. The rampant consumerism that has taken it over in most of the western world also repels us, and, finally, BD – who has the two-sided gift called Asperger’s Syndrome – is overwhelmed by the lights, music, colours and crowds of the season. So, over the years, we’ve distanced ourselves from the mad rush of Christmas.
For many years we’ve travelled over the period, removing ourselves from it altogether. We’ve been, on December 25th, places as far-flung as Antarctica (it’s summer there, in mid December), India, China and England. But this year, since we are no longer bound by the two-week school holiday, we’re not travelling until January, and will be home.
We’re spending Christmas Day with BD’s brother’s family, his nephew home from Australia, where he’s in grad school; his niece home from a closer university. We haven’t yet decided who is contributing what to the meal, but it will be a shared effort. We’ll tell stories and learn what the kids have been up to, and be respectful of this family’s Christian beliefs, as they will be respectful of our agnosticism. Then we’ll head down to my sister’s house for the 27th, to spend some time with her and her husband, and my brother and his family. This is the first year without anyone from our parent’s generation: both my father, and my sister-in-law’s father, died this past year, and so we are gathering differently, to share food and wine and laughter in a different house than other years, a new chapter in the story.
When I look back on my childhood, what I remember of Christmas – what stands out – is never the presents. I remember the food, the turkey and stuffing, the cranberry sauce and the mince tarts. There were almost always extra people at that dinner: widowed friends, an elderly childless couple, my mother doing her best to alleviate loneliness for one day. I remember decorating the tree each year, bringing out the old, battered decorations, having their stories retold each year, maybe adding one or two new ones, often hand-made. I remember sitting one year with my older brother singing Silent Night in front of the tree. I remember the long games of Monopoly on Christmas afternoon. And the few presents I do remember were ones made with love and by hand: a new outfit for my favourite doll, when I was about 4 or 5; a purple corduroy housecoat when I was thirteen, a hand-carved plaque saying Sid (because my hair, in the mornings, looked like Sid Vicious’s,) that BD made me early on in our relationship.
Our families on both sides have long ago given up on exchanging anything more than token, consumable presents: none of us need anything, and so the money we would have spent goes to support a cause we believe in – anything from the local food bank to mosquito nets, wildlife habitat to refugee sponsorship. Some of those battered decorations will be on my sister’s Christmas tree this year, and the stuffing and mince tarts are still my mother’s recipes. Our extended celebrations will be spread over the days between the solstice – December 22nd this year – when we light a candle that will burn through the night, an acknowledgement of the shortest day, to New Year’s Day, when we’ll host friends and family for a late lunch.
Whatever you celebrate or acknowledge in late December, whether or not your family is close or not, there is a deep atavistic need for light and warmth and companionship in the darkest days in the northern hemisphere. I wish that for everyone, although I know it isn’t possible for many. As you plan your Christmas, think about what you remember. I am old enough that a tangerine in my stocking was a special treat of the season. Such a small thing…but given with great love. That is what I remember.