“No, dear, tomorrow is Christmas. And tomorrow can’t come ’til you go to sleep.”
I wonder how many parents have tried that logic on hyper little ones begging for it to be Christmas NOW. It is a contest that has probably gone on, in some form or other, in every modern household that has ever held a child.
It was particularly hard struggle for me when I was growing up, because Christmas was an abrupt holiday at our house. It had no lead in except that wonderful, awful anticipation. Christmas arrived at our house as a flat out, explosive miracle.
No Christmas tree appeared weeks in advance for us. There was no gradual build up of presents under the tree, to be shaken and squeezed and guessed at. Except for the outside lights, our house stayed bleak and unfestive as all the rest of the year. (Naturally, it was not really all that bleak…it just seemed that way to a feverishly impatient four or five year old).
Finally, Christmas Eve would arrive. Cranky, anxious, I was absolutely certain that this night of all nights I would never be able to go to sleep. I would demand for Christmas to arrive and be told that it was just one of the rules that I had to go to sleep first.
This seemed terribly unjust. I desperately wanted to stay awake. I remember trying to feign sleep as best I could. I just knew that if I could stay awake long enough, I would be able to see Santa Claus arrive and watch the miracle take place. (I can remember sneaking down one year and hiding in the hall so as not to miss the magic…where my parents later found me asleep and carried me off to bed.)
I suppose some worthy child psychologist would describe all this, correctly, as unreasonably rigid and possibly even cruel. But children don’t see things that way. At the time I simply saw it as another incomprehensibility in an arbitrary world.
Looking backward, I now think the tantalization was a necessary prelude for a true appreciation of the miracle that was about to take place.
What happened was this: At a godawful early hour, still dark outside, my parents would awaken me Christmas morning. Doing my juvenile best to curse the fact that I had again failed to stay awake, I would jump up and tear into the living room.
But it was our living room no longer. Overnight, it had been transformed. In just a few hours Santa Claus had moved all the furniture, erected a beautiful, richly aromatic tree, decorated it with a dazzling display of densely packed ornaments, tinsel and brilliant lights and surrounded it with wonderful, brilliantly wrapped presents. With the only light the tree itself and still dark outside, this multi-colored miracle was set off as perfectly as it could be.
At the time, I just assumed that what I knew of Christmas was the same thing that everyone else experienced. Oh, I learned pretty quickly our getting up in the dark was different from what my friends did. (Our getting up so bloody early was due not to the theatrics of it, but to the mundane truth that my father had to work, starting early, even on Christmas. So if he was going to see us open at least the biggest presents, we had to start in the dark.) But all the rest I took to be normal. Living in the child’s world of absolutes, I knew that Christmas just had some special Rules:
* You had to go to sleep first.
* Nothing appeared before Christmas morning.
* Ergo, nothing could ever be opened beforehand.
* Dinner was for mid-afternoon.
* Christmas dinner was, of course, turkey.
Other things, like the glass icicles on the branches to go with the tinsel or the delicate silver angel on the top of the tree, the egg nog, the wonderful non-sage dressing and that horrible mince pie and even worse fruit cake (from the relatives back East, curse their sadistic souls), were taken for granted. Not quite part of the basic structure that made Christmas Christmas, perhaps, but familiar accessories of the day.
Even later, when we kids were old enough that the overnight miracle (which I still have a lot of trouble believing my father ever went along with) passed into history, there were basic Rules that made Christmas in our household and they stayed the same.
It was only when I began visiting friends for the holidays that I discovered that others did it differently (and, I felt in my heart, wrongly). Some had something called a Yule Log. Some had ham for Christmas dinner. And some, in utter disregard of the Rules, actually opened their presents on Christmas Eve (which my young Catholic heart regarded as pretty close to sin).
It was surprisingly late before it finally occurred to me to ask my parents where all those Rules had come from. Were they hallowed traditions, centuries old, that came over on the boat? (Actually, since one section of the family came over from Germany about fifty years before another came over from Ireland and a third from Sweden, that whole idea had a certain improbability about it.) Had we simply chosen one tradition (the German, of course) and followed it? Or was it something peculiar to their polyglot home city, Minneapolis?
The truth, according to my parents, is that as their families had not shared common ideas about what was right and proper with regards to Christmas, my folks, after considerable pushing and tugging, simply gave up and amalgamated the traditions into a ritual unique to our family.
Zounds! The Rules had a cultural depth of maybe a whole fifteen or twenty years.
Having gotten over the shock of this, I became kind of fascinated. Neither side, it seemed, had a tradition of a Yule Log, so we missed that…somewhat to my regret. Neither side had anything about lumps of coal, either…which was probably just as well for me.
Both the Swedes and the Germans had Christmas trees, although the Germans claimed to have originated it. The candles to light them were another German contribution, which my folks wisely allowed to give way to electric lights, or the house would never have survived the rough-housing of two rowdy boys.
The Irish side gave us the grog and (presumably through the British) the carols. I suspect the Irish may also have given us that lace that materialized all over the place, but I can’t swear to it. Neither side liked ham much, and, geese being mercifully scarce, we got turkey as a substitute.
The Swedes apparently went in for presents in a big way (bless them!), especially for children, so we kids made out like bandits. The tradition was for indulgence, so the toys and candy were crowded at the front of the tree and those terrible squishy packages that held underwear and pajamas were discretely hidden in back.
Since the Swedes held sway over the gifts, we followed their tradition and opened the gifts on Christmas morning.
It was a lot of fun to trace the often trivial origins of what I had taken to be the Rules, iron-clad and absolute. I suspect that if most of us cast our minds back to our childhoods and then query our relatives, we would be able to parse the cultural gifts that came with our own holidays and discover ourselves to be multi-cultural (in the best sense) heirs.
Still, I never was quite able to track down (or get anyone to admit to) a reason why the entire miracle had to magically appear, full blown, on Christmas morning.
It was just one of the Rules.