Christmas tradition doesn’t exactly enslave the Yanks, but there are a bunch of things we do as a tribe every holiday season. It would take me weeks to report on how all of our traditions fared this year so I’ll just give you a rundown of the top three:
1. Christmas tree cutting: Big thumbs-up. My family goes on a Christmas tree hunt out in the Virginia countryside every year. We’d been going to the same farm in Round Hill for the past five or six seasons, but last year we began to see signs that perhaps we ought to make a change. First, the farm must have embarked on an ad campaign, because the parking lot the weekend after Thanksgiving had as high a car count as your average Wal-Mart. On top of that, the tree farmers seemed to have reached a tipping point in their efforts to diversify their portfolio. They started out innocuously years ago by selling hot cider in addition to trees. Soon, they expanded to selling cookies and pies. By this time last year, they’d added an organic butcher, three vintners and a nine-piece band. It felt as rustic as Costco. And then there was the matter of transporting our freshly cut trees from field to car, a distance of half a mile or so. If you’re not familiar with the experience, carrying an eight foot felled pine is like handling a ninety pound cactus. You’d think the farm would help with this part of the process but you’d be wrong. For $100 per tree, they want to make sure you don’t miss out on a chance to do some alfresco weightlifting and get organic acupuncture.
I was discussing this with a friend, who said, “Home Depot sells cut trees for $25 and they put it on top of your car, you know.”
While those economics are hard to beat, my family wasn’t ready to give up our tradition for a trip to the wilderness of Home Depot.
At 8 a.m. on December 9 –late in the cut-your-own tree season– we set out for a new farm a few miles from the old one. Only three cars had arrived ahead of us, which either meant that we’d found a hidden gem or that acres of Charlie Brown trees awaited. As we strolled we found row after row of robust, well-shaped trees. They’d been grown a bit too close together but it hadn’t hampered their health or shapeliness as far as we could see. It didn’t take us long to find our trees or farmhands to load them up onto an ATV for easy transport back to the farmhouse. We pronounced the trip a huge success, even after we got home and discovered that, as a result of growing up so close together that inadequate space remained for pruning, each of our trees leans like a pine-scented Tower of Pisa.
2. Christmas Eve Mass: Too close to call. The Northern Virginia locals (my parents, Lynne and her family, and I) go to Christmas Eve Mass at Nativity Parish in Burke, every year. I never miss this ritual even though my being agnostic makes it a somewhat dicey proposition. I generally play it safe by staying silent during prayer recitations—I learned this the hard way when some enterprising Church bigwig got it in his head recently to change up the words of prayers Catholics had been saying for 35 years –by avoiding communion, and by following everyone else’s lead.
This strategy was serving me well this year until we got to the “Sign of Peace,” where you shake hands with all the people around you. As the ritual Spreading of the Bacteria was coming to a close, I reached across my niece and nephew to shake hands with my brother-in-law.
Unfortunately, my foot encountered the unexpected resistance of the kneeler and I lost my balance. Instead of placing my hand in my brother-in-law’s, I came perilously close to reaching second base with my sister. I may have to re-think this tradition for next year (as should the thousands of other lapsed Catholics who attended the service and committed so many pre-Mass sins in the parking lot that the Church should have set up a pop-up confessional).
3. Christmas Eve with the Roommates: Jazz Hands. In 2011, I lived with my sister, her husband and their two kids (aka “The Roommates”) for nine months, which meant that I was in the house when the kids woke up on Christmas morning that year. They saw this development as only slightly less miraculous than Santa’s annual loot-drop, and they’ve asked me to spend the night at their house every Christmas Eve since. I’m grateful they still think their aunt is cool, so I’m always very happy to oblige. This year, I arrived at my sister’s house after Mass on Christmas Eve and found the roommates in their pajamas, teeth brushed. By 9 p.m. they were tucked in, which meant that Santa could get to work. He set up shop in the dining room, a rather bold move since both it and the living room (the place where the presents land) flank the stairs and are the first areas the kids would see if they made an unexpected appearance. I expressed this concern to my brother-in-law but he felt certain the Roommates were down for the count. Half an hour into our work, which consisted mainly of doing wrapping paper algebra and trying to piece together last year’s scraps to achieve maximum box coverage (not because my sister is a sustainable wrapper but because she forgot to replenish her stock), I heard footsteps on the stairs and then saw my nine year-old nephew on the landing.
“What are you doing?” he said.
Luckily, eleven years of practicing law had prepared me for just such a moment. Without hesitation I concocted a story that was 75 parts fact and 25 parts fiction (an unusually high truth ratio as alibis go) involving my inadvertently leaving the front door unlocked after making a trip out to my car for a bottle of champagne to share with the roommates’ parents, and then the three of us failing to hear Santa’s entrance because we were busy boozing it up in the kitchen. I told this story from the middle of the full-size bed in my nephew’s room, where I lay sandwiched between the Roommates.
When I finished, my niece said, “Will you stay with us, Wheatie Bo? I’m a little freaked out right now.”
Since I was partly to blame for this Santa credibility crisis, I couldn’t refuse. And that’s how a 42 year-old woman who’s great without child ends up spending Christmas Eve with two kids.
And in case you’ve ever wondered about the head-to-toe sleeping configuration? It only works in cartoons.