Christmas Past

If you watched Stephen Colbert’s show-length interview with Joe and Jill Biden last week, you heard Joe, acting like the nation’s corny but well-meaning grandpa, describing his annual habit of spreading fake snow, made with Ivory Snow flakes, on the branches of the family Christmas tree.

Joe really got into it, adding a lot of detail about placement of single strands of tinsel, and how this was a midnight tradition handed down from his father. The future first lady was bravely smiling, in political wife fashion, but she had that look women get when they want their husbands to stop rambling on.

But personally—I was charmed. It was geezer talk, all right, but it’s refreshing to hear the next Leader of the Free World get all nostalgic about past Christmases and his father. Joe Biden is an unabashedly sentimental empath—and an empath is what we need when there are monsters lurking.

When Joe Biden started getting specific about tinsel, I flashed to my mom. My mother was a post-war bride who saved tinsel, year to year, tied with ribbon. When the newspapers (remember them?) published stories about the high lead content in old-style tinsel, she phased it out, but prior to that she was a single-strand person, carefully doling out the silvery magic, making it last, teetering on her step stool.

As a 30-year music teacher, I wrestled annually with what others—parents, students, administrators—thought was my job during the holidays. I recognize that Christmas cheer is often false and corrosive in public settings, not to mention a thoughtless privileging of one quasi-religious tradition over all others.

Still—all major religious and cultural groups have some kind of ‘turning of the light’ festival, often featuring a hopeful story, feasting, music and merriment. A friend who identifies as a Pagan humanist celebrates the Winter Solstice and puts up a Yule Tree—which from the road looks just like every Christmas tree on her block. When she put a picture of it up on Facebook, however, I was surprised at how many commenters poked at her terminology—reactions ranging from cynical snottiness to genuine antagonism.

Donald Trump knew what he was doing when he bragged that under his reign tenure in office, it would once again be OK to say Merry Christmas. He understood, at some level, the mystical, murky power of nostalgia, and the distress of having your cherished memories and beliefs challenged. He also pumped up the idea of a threatened majority–Santa Claus Matters!

The truth is that people whose memories do not include candlelit midnight masses and glorious, present-saturated dawns with all the trimmings are American citizens, too—and when it comes to family holiday celebrations, religious belief matters less than resources and circumstances. Christmas and other winter holidays are fueled by memory as much as reality.

On Twitter yesterday, a guy named @MohammadHussain wrote this: Growing up, my Muslim family never celebrated Christmas. This year I am not going home, because pandemic, so my roommates are teaching me how to have my first proper Christmas. I am approaching this with anthropological precision.

Hussain’s Tweet thread is hilarious, including the observation that Christmas ornaments fall into two groups: the “fillers” and the “keepers”. The fillers are the generic ones. The keepers are meant to be more special and unique. This second stream is stored in your family’s reliquary to be one day passed on to the children.

In our family reliquary, there are the usual travel souvenirs and construction-paper photo frames. Because I taught band and choir, half the keepers are music-related. There’s also a chipped Hot Wheels rendition of the General Lee (the orange Dodge Charger that the Dukes of Hazzard kept airborne), attached to a string, and hung on a Christmas tree, back in the 1990s by my son, who’s always been a car guy.

Christmas is perfect only in memory. And sometimes—like the Christmas between the diagnosis of my dad’s brain cancer at Thanksgiving, and his death in early January—the memory is dark and riven with sorrow. But it’s still there, reminding me that healing is possible, if you give it enough time and eggnog.

Social media has been filled with trees and lights and So Many Packages. Plus an out-of-control festival of baking. On Tuesday, I will be baking my mom’s caramel butter cookies to take to the local nursing home.

Lest you think my mother was a creative master baker—no. She was an indifferent 1950s cook. Lots of jello, dishes based on cream of something soup, and pedestrian box-mix cakes. But at some point in the 1960s, she was given a cookie press, and I was there watching her (probably because of the novelty) attempt to make caramel butter cookies from the little booklet that came in the box with the press.

Pressing out cookie shapes is harder than it looks. The dough must be the right consistency. She tried adding water. Then extra flour. Then she put the dough and the press in the fridge. The dough went from a food-colored toothpaste-ish ooze to the texture of chilled, unset cement. The cookies were brightly colored disaster-blobs. But I can’t remember ever laughing so hard, tears running down our cheeks. And when my mother died, in 2000, the one thing I wanted was her cookie press.

The right-wing press was really hard on Joe Biden’s interview with Colbert, but it went down well at our house, where we are leaning heavily, in 2020, on hope. It reminded me of Maya Angelou’s poem:

Love arrives

and in its train come ecstasies

old memories of pleasure

ancient histories of pain.

Yet if we are bold,

love strikes away the chains of fear

from our souls.