Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Christmas of Thanksgiving

Everyone has strong memories this time of year. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, and the more ancient memories of winter solstice, deep in our cells. Memory is who we are and where we came from.  Sometimes it’s where we’re going.
Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, detached as it is for most of us, from religious trappings.  It’s easy for me to take my place at the laden table, surrounded by family and friends, clasp hands and say what I am grateful for.  I don’t mind that God summoned up is a laden table itself.  I’m willing to listen to Him or Her or It, the Universe, the Source, the Ancestor, the Creator, the Holy of Holies, the Mother Earth, Father Sky, be called upon to listen to our gratitudes large and small.  The pressure to Believe, the need to be right, doesn’t seem to be there on Thanksgiving.  Everyone seems to be content with just the moment  in which to be grateful.  Memories of turkeys cooked frozen with their parts still wrapped in paper buried inside the bird, the oyster stuffing everyone hated, the absolute must of three cranberry relishes – out of the can, orange-cranberry with port wine, and Mama Stemberg’s Pepto-Bismol pink, memories of grandparents now gone and of the unborn baby keeping me far from the table so that much gravy ended up on my stomach.  We express gratitude for all of those memories by gathering with others to create more.  We are our memories.
The other holidays are locked in my memory with burdens.  Christmas and Easter particularly so since they carry both religious and secular weight.  Perhaps that confusion adds to the encumbrance.  After all, how can making the list of things we want lie comfortably with charity and gifts of selflessness for the Baby Jesus?  And how does the enquiring mind justify counting packages under the tree with having to give up toys from last year for the poor kids.  Who were these poor kids anyway?  Every Christmas, before I could make out my list, I had to select several items to give away from my personal collection of toys, and they had to be good enough to give.  Obviously if they were “good enough to give”, I hadn’t been playing with them very much.  But I was a selfish little brat and with the call to give, came the louder voice from within, “NO! That’s my favorite toy!”  Though I was given several days to make this selection, it never got easier.  Those toys that had gotten pushed to the back of my closet, lying in the darkened corner, unopened even, were too shiny to pass on without a fight.  As I fought, I grew uglier, being reminded by adults that if I were not acting lovingly on the inside, it would surely begin to show on the outside. Pretty is as pretty does.  Beauty on the inside is the only beauty that counts.  Do ugly, be ugly. Standing on my “tall girl” stool, checking in the bathroom mirror, I was certain I could see ugly warts growing on my nose, bad teeth coming in, my hair falling out.  I trudged to the closet and yanked my new favorite toy out, slamming it on the bed, now hating the very item I wanted most to possess.
If giving was burdensome way back in my childhood, it grew to be something of a yoke around my neck in later years.  In my twenties and thirties, having gone back to the earth, so to speak, to raise my family on a farm, it was only natural to make every gift by hand.  The list of people to gft (having finally gotten that giving is more fun than getting) increased each year, until the making took most of my free time from June to Dec. 25, about 3 a.m.  Often times the gifts failed to cross the threshold of the “store bought” look.  My jams were tasty but I never got the knack of the packaging.  My cloth covered lids always looked common.  I needed Martha, but Martha wasn’t yet.  Now, I wouldn’t have Martha.  But, that’s what happens on the route from hand-made in the 70’s to artist-made in the 10’s - the mass market makes everything common.  Nevertheless, the gifts piled up – sweaters and mittens, socks and purses, handwoven pillows and throws.  The dollhouse with furniture, curtains and bedcovers kept me up till 3.  I should have gotten a real job at the North Pole.
What is giving now?  I wonder how much laughter, how many tears, how many memories people will have now that the holidays are so much about getting great deals from ever larger and more generic stores.  Does lining up in front of Best Buy at 2 a.m on Black Friday make Thanksgiving more memorable?  I try to connect the dots of Thanksgiving and Black Friday, but the dots form no lasting string of memory for me.  I just know that if you want to be in that line at 2 a.m., you don’t feel like playing Charades or Monopoly, or even Wii, with the kids while you get ready for the second round of turkey and pie.  Where are we going with memories of big box stores and cheap goods from overseas?
         In these trying financial times, memories of fatter days can ask you who you really are.  I used to sigh with the sadness of wanting more than I had.  When my kids were little I wanted to get the best and biggest of the toys plus everything else they had on their lists.  I never could.  I often felt that I had failed them somehow.  It took me such a very long time to understand that my desire to fill their world with things was nothing more than me trying to fill the unfillable void left by the death of my mother and the breakup of my family.  I could not see that my children were the gifts  given to me to fill the void.  The memories of Christmases past are burdened by that endless struggle to have enough.  When would I ever have enough?  Not in time to relieve my daughter of the same burden.  Our memories are who we are and sometimes who our children are as well.  Sometimes it’s good to be selective about which memories we carry with us.
         I have packed my burdensome memories in a Lucite box so that I may see them, acknowledge that they are mine, but I place them on a shelf in my mind where I need not go unless I choose to, a shelf lit by the light of transparency but high up so children and grandchildren cannot be tripped or tumbled by them.
         This year, as I held hands around the Thanksgiving table and listened to the gratitudes, small and large, being spoken by all in turn, I was filled with the memory of last Christmas season.  My children and grandchildren traveled all the way to North Carolina to spend the week with my husband and myself.  We don’t celebrate a religious Christmas.  Nor is it exactly a secular Christmas.  Rather it is a Christmas of Thanksgiving.  My husband and I are not Christians but a neighbor gave us a tree with lights, for the children he said, and we all spent days making paper stars, cranberry and popcorn strings, and cookie angels.  As we sat around the kitchen table we told stories of other Christmases and that was when I realized that all those Christmases of sighs, of being afraid that what I did wasn’t enough – well, it was only my memory.  Just mine.  The kids remembered joy and fun and wonderful times – riding in the bucket of the old red tractor to cut firewood in the forest, tramping out in the field to cut three straggly trees to wire into one whole Christmas tree that would be too tall and have to be cut down to fit our house, carols and baking cookies, and decorating with paper chains and, oh yes, the yearly gingerbread house, to be decimated on New Year’s Day.  Full and loving Christmases.  Memories of love.  And, of course we all know…"love is all there really is."

Syed and I send our love to you all in this season of Love.


  1. I think food is a part of how nostalgic the holiday experience is for us. The smells of the Thanksgiving can just transport you back. It's incredible.

  2. Oh Whitney, you are so wonderfully descriptive and pure of truthfulness! You have managed to put into words what is so void in the true meaning of the Holidays. This has always been my least favorite time of the year because of this attitude. I love the New Year because of the fresh new start and hopeful optimism. You are a very gifted writer and artist. In your spare time you should write a book. Love love your art! Debbie Wilson