Like everyone else, I complain about the commercialization of Christmas, but let’s be clear: as a kid I was all about the presents.
I used to lie on my belly on our living room rug and stare at them for hours. We had those big, incandescent Christmas lights that were always a threat to send the whole tree up in flames. Some of them blinked on and off, bathing the pile of presents in a multicolored light show. I lay in the dark, willing my eyes to bore through the tacky wrapping paper and the crumpled, stick-on bows. I never got tired of it.
But as clearly as I can picture those boxes, I can’t remember a single present that came out of them. Well, except the Etch A Sketch my brother got one year — but only because he bashed me over the head with it, showering me with silver sparkle-dust.
The presents, as much as we loved them, were just one-offs. What made the holidays special were the things we did every year. Hauling a five-dollar tree on the roof of the Chevy, and rearranging the living-room furniture so we’d have some place to put it. Dragging the boxes of ornaments down from the attic, and fighting over who got to hang our favorites. Every night, we’d sit on the couch sipping store-bought eggnog, and watch the animated Christmas specials on TV: Rudolph, Frosty, The Grinch and Charlie Brown. On New Year’s Eve, we struggled to stay awake until midnight, then ate crackers and smoked oysters from a can. For years, I thought oysters were a traditional New Year’s food. My dad just liked smoked oysters.
It turns out none of our holiday traditions were very traditional. My parents came from Chinese immigrant families. When it came to Christmas, they were just making stuff up. We had no heirloom ornaments, no handmade stockings, and no family Christmas recipes. Everything came from the Stop & Shop and the local Kmart, and the patina of age I mistook for antiquity was just cheap stuff wearing out. But I loved it — all of it. And if I still owned that ugly rainbow icicle ornament with the flaking paint, I’d pull it out every year and hang it on my ninety-dollar noble fir with a wistful, nostalgic tear.
A kid’s world changes really fast. Things that seemed so important just a heartbeat ago are suddenly old news. And all that change can leave them feeling a little off balance. That’s why kids need ritual. It doesn’t have to be some ancient ceremony passed down from generation to generation. It could just as well be some unplanned thing you did once and decided to keep doing. After all, who doesn’t like smoked oysters?
There was a famous Seinfeld episode where Jerry and his friends cooked up an alternative holiday called “Festivus,” in reaction to the pressures and commercialism of Christmas. It included a Festivus Pole (an undecorated aluminum pipe), a Festivus Feast (meatloaf and spaghetti), The Airing of Grievances (a time for lashing out at friends and relatives after drinking too much), and Feats of Strength (in which the head of the household challenges the guests to a wrestling match). There were even Festivus Miracles, which were actually just minor coincidences recounted with wide-eyed wonder and awe.
Remarkably, in the years since that episode aired, some people have begun to practice Festivus in earnest. And I say, why not? America is a country of outcasts and pioneers. So many who came here severed ties with their past in some way. But does that mean we, or our children, have to live our lives without rituals and traditions? At some point every tradition, no matter how ancient, was just a thing that someone decided to do.
At our house, we make an elaborate bûche de Noël every Christmas — not because we’re in any way French, but just because it looks cool. Once the tree is decorated, we play “I Spy” with the ornaments while we sit in the dark on the couch. Charlie Brown, Rudolph and The Grinch grace our TV screen, joined by The Muppets, The Santa Clause, and Elf. And on New Year’s Eve, smoked oysters are once again plucked from their little rectangular tins, and Safeway eggnog flows in abundance.
These are my family’s traditions. As random as they seem, they’re still the enduring fabric of my daughters’ memories of being young. So don’t worry if you can’t find ancient landmarks and hieroglyphs to guide your children through their lives. Just clear a path, and walk it with them until it feels familiar beneath their feet. They can do the rest.
Jeff Lee performs Festivus Miracles and Feats of Strength in Seattle.