When "Making Merry" is Making the Best of the Season
The Christmases of my childhood were outstandingly merry. If you combined a Norman Rockwell painting with a poem from any of the Christmas editions of Ideals Magazine, you'd be close to what I experienced as a kid in the suburbs of Denver in the 1980s, when people still liked to reflect upon how they bought their suburban Denver homes when the homes were still on the edge of the city.
I moved up to the mountains from Denver 14 years ago during an ill-advised streak of post-collegiate curiosity about being a ski bum, but I can’t afford to move back down if I wanted to, due to urban sprawl fueled by the attraction Silicon Valley-types have to a tolerable climate and a low cost of living, which is naturally driving up the cost of living. I've realized that Denver's Great Blizzard of '82 can sometimes be what I drive through on an average day to get to my job to (not really) pay for my mountain lifestyle.
But as a kid, Christmases—let's say, the Christmas of '82 and thereafter—were pure magical merriment.
That first Saturday morning after I'd been let out of school for Christmas, I’d go on a cross-town jaunt with my dad in his 1960's Volkswagen Beetle to buy our traditional Norwegian lutefisk from one of the few remaining markets in Denver that sold it. The grocery market itself—old, cramped, and in a bad-and-getting-worse-every-year part of town—smelled to me of holiday break and of quality time with my chemist dad, which was only slightly harder to come by than it was with my stay-at-home mom. I'd catch him up on my friendship dramas and we'd exchange existential hypotheses on our way to get the lutefisk, over the nasally hum of the Bug.
My mom's cookie baking would have worked itself up to a fevered pitch. She would say that having 9 different kinds of homemade cookies to put on the Christmas cookie platter is good luck in Scandinavia. So, she shot for 9 and always ended up making a few more varieties. In addition to the traditional delicately flavored krumkake and her masterfully light rosettes that dissolved on your tongue in a gratifying crunch of fat and sugar, new recipes—like Peppermint Whirly-Doos and Chocolate Checkerboard Nutty Bits were pulled from the relative obscurity of the homemaking magazines and recipe booklets lining her regular grocery store's check-out lane. I helped her decorate cookies during the weeks preceding Holiday Break. While Charlie Brown's Christmas special, or Rudolph, were on the tube television—I'd be carefully scattering sugar crystals or rainbow colored nonpareils on almond spritz dough as fast as my mom could squeeze them out.
Those first sweet days of Holiday Break, I'd have traded my school sneakers and neon Lisa Frank garb to pad around in slippers and hand-knit sweaters, while I helped my mom dust the furniture to prepare for Christmas. I’d occasionally wind the plastic music box that depicted an angel sitting at a pipe organ and tinkled out a tinny version of "Silent Night"—one of a houseful of special holiday tchotchkes, Scandinavian Christmas decor items, advent calendars (we had 2 plus an advent candle holder, its holes drilled into the trunk of my parents' first-ever Christmas tree as a married couple), and construction paper chains—lovingly placed, tucked, and hung in familiar corners of our cozy little brick home, while snow swirled outside and Johnny Mathis' music rolled away on the cassette player.
Christmas itself would be heralded on Christmas Eve by the clip-clop of my mother's dress shoes pattering around the house, and the warmth of the oven baking its lutefisk filling every crevice of our home and of my soul, as we waited for my grandparents to arrive from a nearby suburb with the box full of gifts they'd bring that would take up most of the space in our tiny living room, until we somehow got them stuffed underneath the tree with the rest of the packages that we’d have been shaking and guessing about for days.
Our lutefisk and lefse dinner with molded rum pudding floating in cherry sauce in crystal goblets for dessert would be followed by a drive to church. I'd want to ride with my grandparents because they let me sit on the small, cushy bump of a spot that folded down in the middle of the back bench seat; that is—they let me sit on what I now know was the arm rest. Church could not go by quickly enough. We got to go home to open all our "family" presents on Christmas Eve, and wake to see what Santa Claus had put out in our own individual displays, backlit in the early morning's dark by our tree's string lights bouncing off its tinsel. We always got the one thing we'd put at the very top of our Christmas wish lists, which we had compiled from days spent looking through the toy section of the inches-thick JCPenney catalog.
Merry, it was. Merry, we were.
I have since married and I have two small children; I've never had a choice to work outside of my home anything less than full-time. I can't offer my children the same painstaking magic during the holiday season. My son's Christmas List comes from "As Seen on TV", which I let him watch once we're home from work and daycare to buy myself a minute to cobble together a wholesome dinner that doesn't necessarily come out of a box or from the shrink-wrapped frozen section, momentarily and guiltily choosing the health of his body over the health of his mind. I recently lost my dad to kidney failure, and my mom sits lost to the ravages of dementia, so—while we've never been very far away from them, our Christmases are void of the raucous, abundant joy that grandparents are known for bringing to the holidays. My holiday cleaning consists of shoving scattered toys into the giant toy bin that sits in the corner and stealing a few minutes away from doing any of the other 73 things I always have left undone, to vacuum up the hair tufts from the cats' last wrestling match so we have a nice place to sit and open gifts. I even married a vegetarian. I'm still trying to find a Christmas entree recipe that I look forward to enough that I'm willing to turn it into its own tradition, reserved for what should be the most exquisite and merriest of days. I've been trying for about a decade now. The closest I've come is spinach lasagna. It's at least red and green, right?
Our "merry" looks and feels different than my "merry" did as a kid, and it's hard for me to reconcile the two.
"Merry" to me now, is having found a job that lets me out early for Christmas—so I have a few hours of feeling like Christmas is coming, before Christmas hits and before I'm back at work again the next day. Merry is having the Rudolph and Charlie Brown Christmas specials on DVD because we may not be home in time to catch them on network television. So, we watch them Saturday morning. And probably again, Saturday afternoon. And probably also in-between because Mommy has to get some laundry done. Merry is having just enough decorations that they all fit into one tub, and can be put out in one centralized area so I can come through and put them all back again in one fell swoop over one of the weekends after the holidays.
But merry is also being pridefully presented with a clay handprint ornament that my child’s teachers helped him make while he was at daycare—the idea of which I may not have come up with, if we were home with limited materials. Merry is taking a moment after the kids have gone to bed and the kitchen lights are off, lunches having been packed and the coffee maker prepped, but before I blow out the advent candles in the wreath I’d been given as passed from a Swedish cousin through to my grandmother and then on to me—to enjoy their light and to be reminded that maybe it’s not about making merry. Maybe it’s about making the best of this miraculous season. - - -
Carisa Peterson is a mother of two, a worker bee, and a published writer and produced playwright who writes in the wee hours from her home in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Her creative work can be seen on McSweeney’s, The Wisdom Daily, Her View From Home, The Refresh, Real Mom Daily, Elephant Journal, and in the successful 4 week-run of Curves Ahead at Breckenridge, Colorado’s Backstage Theatre (2015). Follow Carisa @LynnoType, see her on Facebook, or visit www.carisapeterson.com.