I adored Christmas as a kid, and not simply for the presents, which seemed both central and beside the point.
The Gresko Family Christmas was as orchestrated, ornate, and long as a high mass. In early November the calendar came off the fridge, and my parents filled many of December's blank squares with sweet promises. Visit a farm to get the tree. Switch out the usual knickknacks for the holiday tchotchkes. Take in the season's splendid decorations, from a trip to Philadelphia department stores to drives around bedecked suburban neighborhoods. The specifics, right down to the roster of cookies we baked, remained the same year after year.
The weeks between Thanksgiving and the New Year served as the axis around which one half of the family's year revolved, just like our equally ritualized beach vacation to Cape May did for the other half. This made for some strong magic, and I clung to Christmas longer than most children. I believed in Santa Clause 'till the fifth grade, at which point he raised a white-gloved hand when I went to sit on him, suggesting that I rest my gangly pre-adolescent frame at his feet instead. In eighth grade, nutcrackers and snowmen adorned my shelves even in the dog days of August. And to think, I often wondered why I wasn't more popular at school.
When I became an adult, I soured on the pomp and schmaltz that charmed me as a youth. The prescriptions of our holiday traditions seemed suffocating at best, and fascist in extreme. Ok, so maybe that's a bit over-the-top. Let's just say that I hate being told what to do, and that's what tradition felt like—the voice of authority. Aside from the legitimate joy I took in dressing the tree and the entirely un-ironic tears brought forth by hearing the John Denver and The Muppets album A Christmas Together, I opted out of Christmas. Many years, I didn't give more than a couple of presents.
Recently, this Little Drummer Boy-turned-Scrooge has been changing his tune. I've felt a gentle tickle, like the resonance of a bell, pass through me when I consider the joys of the season.
My son has caused me to reconsider the role of tradition at the holidays—not a surprising insight, I know. How often do we hear about children reinvigorating their jaded parents? Except that the force of my son's unadulterated enthusiasm has me astonished, because we never talked up the holiday. It just sort of made its way into his consciousness osmotically.
After a largely unmarked first Christmas, I took my son to Macy's last year. I thought, with his dawning 18-month-old awareness, that he'd enjoy the sparkling lights, dancing bears, and young people running around in jesters' hats pretending to be elves. All went well till we approached the head honcho himself. My son greeted Santa with the same shrieks and wriggling acrobatics that he did his vaccinations. In short, he gave Old Saint Nick a perfect demonstration of what a little terror he'd been.
Since then, my tot, ever the ego-maniac, has made a habit of looking at himself in photos. He always finds the pictures with Santa fascinating. “Who's that?” he asks.
“Santa Claus. He brings toys on Christmas.”
That's about the extent to which I wove the mythology of Santa Claus, but I guess when you talk toys to a toddler, they listen. When he heard how the Thanksgiving Day parade ends with Santa's arrival, he became excited. “I want a Woody and a Jessie doll.”
With that, my son demonstrated once again that he's a chip off the ol' block, professing a love of Christmas as strong as his old man's. While he still didn't want to sit on Santa's lap, his only cause for melting down came when we had to move along in line, leaving the behind the trains in the Santaland display. That, and because he expected Santa to hand him his toys after he placed his order.
Since then, on most mornings he asks, “Is it Christmastime?”
He beams when we tell him that yes, it is.
So, in some ways, The Gresko Family Christmas is back. My adult eyes, in part desensitized from gazing too long at the many splendors of the holidays as a youth, in part bucking the family choreography as a way of carving out my own space, see new life in traditions I thought stale and decrepit. We've visited the train display at The Transit Museum Store in Grand Central Terminal, with a visit to The New York Botanical Garden trains on the horizon. We'll visit Dyker Heights to ogle the houses festooned in finery both gaudy and lovely. And for the first time in I don't remember how long, I'm looking forward to a Christmas morning made warm with music, food, and family, and spiced with the excitement of unwrapping presents.
While our family's traditions are sure to be different than those I knew as a kid, that I'm embracing the idea of holding traditions in general is probably the best Christmas surprise I've ever gotten.