Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. I love the decorations, the cookies, even the fruitcake. It didn’t hurt that I was an only child (and the only grandchild) during my formative gift receiving years and, thus, made out pretty well in that department. For 34 years, I spent Christmas Eve with my extended family (who all shared a particularly festive last name of Rudolph). We devoured a multiple course meal (never too fancy, but just rich enough) and opened gifts one person at a time, oldest to youngest. Christmas day, a much more casual affair, was always a bit of a let-down even though the gifts I opened from my parents were usually more expensive and elaborate. It just didn’t have the same level of revelry and ritual.
In contrast, Mike’s family celebrations were always a little more turbulent than mine. While I didn’t know his dad that well, I understand that he didn’t like holidays very much and would always do something that would throw a wrench into the system. His final Christmas was no exception.
Mike and I had the very definition of a whirlwind romance. We met in June, moved in together in September, and by December were talking marriage. For this reason, we thought it wise that he spend the holidays with my family especially since he’d not yet met my parents. After only a day in New York, we were awakened on Christmas Eve’s wee hours by a ringing phone. You see, Mike’s dad had only a few weeks before had a stroke. When we saw him last in the hospital, he seemed to be recovering nicely and his mother gave her blessing to our trip. Unfortunately, his health took a turn for the worse and our first family holiday was cut short by the news of his death.
After that, Christmas changed. For many years, I tried to insist that this historical family fact wouldn’t impact our festivities. By the next year, Little Locathor entered our family unit. And while a child returns a certain innocence and joy to the season, he couldn’t completely rid it of the pallor that the remembrance of a death imparts.
From 2005, we’ve celebrated in Chicago, usually just me, Mike, Thor, and my parents. While our holidays have been wonderful and we’ve created new traditions, like tracking Santa’s sled on the web and treating him with cookies AND Scandinavia’s aquavit, they’ve never quite matched up to the idyllic holidays of my childhood. Often, embarrassingly, because at some point, they’re punctuated by a screaming match between Mike and me. We’re both hot heads and the fight was always more about blowing off steam than any rift in our relationship. Regardless, however, it wasn’t quite the warm fuzzy, Hollywood holiday spirit that I was going for.
After 5 years, we’re trying something new. Mike turns 40 next week, a big occasion at anytime of the year, but with the sadness associated with late December, the thought of a party wasn’t appealing especially when the last large birthday celebration I threw for him was days after his dad’s funeral. Instead, we’re leaving. On Christmas Day, we’re flying to London with a short side trip to Paris – we’ll wake up there the morning of Mike’s birthday. But before that, tomorrow we’ll share a big Christmas Eve celebration with the Rudolph clan.
As news spread among my extended family of our change in plans, they changed theirs. As a kid, the longest trek made by a family member was from White Plains to Long Island, a few hours with traffic. Now we’re convening from California (both ends), Chicago, and New York. While I know it could never live up to the romantic memory of my childhood Christmas’, it won’t need to. This, instead, is a new beginning, a chance to exorcise the ghosts of Christmas past.