Christmas awakening comes as a surprise as old traditions fade

Kansas City Star
BY STACEY HATTON
Columnist

DECEMBER 20, 2017

Christmas has always been my favorite holiday as long as I remember. I’m sure I’m not the only child to choose the day when gifts magically appear over playing find-the-hard-boiled-egg in the yard.

However, if you overlook the eggs, which smell of a hint of vinegar, chocolates are a close second. It doesn’t take much to get a young person on board when chocolate is the prize.

From my earliest memories, Christmas would start with a deliberate bang, like a race start pistol. Something would always wake you up and get things moving. As a young child, it never felt like Christmas until my family’s annual tree fight, I mean adventure.

Traveling to the tree farm outside of town and chopping down the perfect one is such a treasured memory. The problem was not one of us strong-minded tree enthusiasts could agree on what perfection was, perhaps because perfection is unattainable.

The adventure always started with a lot of fun and laughs, but my brother and I knew that would end any minute. The amusement would morph into polite, yet stilted, repartee as soon as it was narrowed down to two trees. Poor, poor frightened trees.

Despite the hopes for a pleasant end, it didn’t take long before the name-calling would start. Don’t worry, Mr. and Mrs. Bickerson never called each other names, but smack talk could be heard across the crisp, cold farm air.

The other spouse’s tree would be called “short, squatty” or “spindly and emaciated.” If the trees could have heard them, they would have had body-image issues.

“Really? That’s the one you want? It’s a poor replica of Charlie Brown’s tree during a drought… now this one is perfect!”

To everyone’s surprise, when I hit middle school, my parents gave up on the farm trip and bought a fake tree. I have no idea how my parents agreed to pick a permanent tree, but thankfully they didn’t include my brother and I for that one.

They agreed they didn’t love the extra stress of picking a tree every year, so they chalked it up to trees of Christmas past. Apparently, it’s arduous to argue arbor alternatives within a big-box store, so there wasn’t much debate.

During high school, sometimes I would invite a friend over to decorate the tree. I thought bringing in an audience would ensure everyone would be on their best behavior. Norman Rockwell would have wanted to join our new family tradition of praising the tree. There had to have been divine intervention.

After having my own kids, the timing of the Christmas start-up shot changed.

The Elf on the Shelf brought the Christmas cheer to my children. It wasn’t our tree that started off the season of joy. They could have cared less about the iconic tree. Christmas was now about a spindly, large-faced elf, playing pranks almost every night.

Change is not always for the better.

Toward the beginning of our marriage, my husband and I agreed with one swipe of a credit card that we’d omit the farm experience of chopping down our tree. Who needed to kill another tree? The obscene amounts of Christmas catalogs we received in the mail were already doing that.

This year, the kids are growing up, the magic level has changed and because of this, the Elf has been forced into early retirement. Poor, poor scrappy elf.

So, what was going to start off the season for us? Not the Elf, not the fake tree, not the hordes of Santas covering every open table space in our home, nor the Clark Griswald amount of lights my darling electrical engineer of a hubby displayed.

This year, my Christmas awakening was surprising.

Last Sunday morning, my family attended a friend’s church service. They featured a formal musical cantata in which the singers wore their fancy black gowns and suits. The music was lovely and so was my friend for inviting us.

The best Christmas gift was there that morning. Why shouldn’t I have expected to find the beginning of my season to be where the reason of the season starts? With all the frustrating things going on in the world, the stress melted away during that service as I sat with my family, listening to old friends spread the joy of Christmas through music.

I know hindsight plays a role in this, but I wish I had cherished those few weeks after Thanksgiving. The silly old Elf, covered in powdered sugar while making snow angels on the kitchen counter, may have been what I needed to kick off the season after all — the season of faith, family and friends.

What’s your beginning to Christmas look like?

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Secret Santas are bringing me down this holiday season

(previously printed in The Kansas City Star)

Thanksgiving to New Year’s has been getting more stressful as the years pass — the massive amount of preparation, the extended-family issues, kids in and out of school, the dreaded Christmas-card debacle, and the hours of shopping. Oh, the shopping!

Now, I consider myself a somewhat giving person. I prefer to give gifts more than receive. I love watching my children’s faces light up when I’ve picked out the perfect gift for them.

But it seems every year I have to turn over another page on my to-do list because the number of “mandatory” gifts have increased from the previous year. I realize that babies need to be born, new friends and spouses must join the list, and neighbors come and go — but does every Midwestern social group have to do Secret Santa gifts?

Until now, I’ve managed to keep my distaste for unnecessary gifting under wraps. I dodged the title of Scrooge or the Grinch Who Ruined Christmas for years, but a prophet (Cyndi Lauper) once said, “Don’t be afraid to let them show, your true colors. True colors are beautiful like a rainbow.”

(Dramatically pushing a soapbox to center stage, behind the microphone)

“Ladies and gentlemen, I simply loathe Secret Santa gifting! That is all.”

(End Scene)

There are enough fabulous gift-giving opportunities in our lives without adding on the umpteen-million bogus gifts. However, that doesn’t derail the happy gift-forcer.

First, you have the book club then your Bible study. Next, you have your husband’s office then your office. And don’t get me started on all the kids’ athletics team secret buddies.

Here’s your secret gift … surprise, you’re not getting one!

Bah, humbug.

Plus, who was the annoying, overachieving person to come up with this obligatory event? It wouldn’t be the CEO of a company, because they’re too busy for that nonsense. Perhaps a single, 20-something, who’s full of spirit, spunk and initiative? Not going to get my stamp of approval.

It was probably a bored or burned out administrative assistant.

Hmm … what would be a fun idea for Mr. Winter’s holiday party? I know! We should draw names, buy them a $5 piece of junk, and wrap it up like it’s worth something.

Furthermore, have you ever received a Secret Santa gift you can’t live without? Everyone knows junky gifts either go straight to the trash, into the dark abyss of a junk drawer, or it takes residence in the re-gifting hidey spot that no one ever admits they have.

You know you have one.

Actually, it might not be too bad to change Secret Santa rules a bit. How about bringing a $5 or less gift, but using only re-gifted items? This way you won’t be responsible for adding more junk to our houses, but just shifting the address of the gift for a year. It could work.

Until then, I’m off to “shop” for a few dozen Secret Santa gifts from my hall closet. Happy holidays to you and your loved ones! 

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Rotation of Thanksgiving guest list brings joy

NOVEMBER 23, 2017 (previously printed in The Kansas City Star)

Tom Turkey defrosting with Buds

Happy belated Thanksgiving. Are you still wearing your favorite elastic waist-banded garment? It’s amazing I used to only own one stretchy pair of poultry pants, saved for the last two months of every year, because now the majority of my closet is filled with various shades and fabrics of turkey trousers.

Normal Thanksgiving dinners growing up consisted of thawing the biggest turkey in the shop for days, waking up at an ungodly hour to turn on the oven and ensure the stuffing hadn’t fallen out of the bird overnight.

For years, it was an intimate affair with our immediate family and one set of grandparents. Never were my parents plucky enough to have the in-laws breaking bread on the same day and at the same location.

Everyone brought a side dish or five, praying that hers would be a success. However, you wouldn’t know if your dish received the four-star rating until the next year, when, and if, you were invited for Thanksgiving and asked to bring it again.

Back then, many of the same family members would join my small family of four, but all it took was one slight change of the guest list to start our annual Thanksgiving “guest swap” rolling. That’s when the holiday became a competitive sport with no holds barred.

The Thanksgiving that changed our polite formal dinner was when I was 9 or 10 years old. The past dining room table had always been covered with a table cloth, our family’s best china, the real silver, and the crystal glasses that only my mother could transport in and out of the kitchen and hand wash.

We didn’t mind, though, because no one wanted to see her break down and cry; plus, our normal chore of drying the dishes was held off that one day of the year.

As a fourth-grader, I remember when my mother, who is the queen of thinking outside the box, was trying to place enough chairs around our table. Her brother’s wife, her large family, and a priest were to caravan from Nebraska.

None of us were Catholic, but we knew deep down we should step up our formal dinner. I mean, how often do you get to have your first supper with clergy?

If we were entertaining a priest just once, my mother was classy enough to know cramped seating would be a sin. It was time to remove the net and cover the ping-pong table with butcher paper. Fancy living was about to commence.

Everyone had a fabulous time at that Thanksgiving, leaving a big impression on us all. Why should such a creative and giving family be thankful for our typical small family guest list? Since our population wasn’t increasing anytime soon, my parents pulled out the old address book and searched for friends who were alone on that holiday.

If they had impressive culinary skills, they were a shoo-in. “Let’s invite people we work with! I know short Margy makes a mean Jell-O mold.”

One year while I was in college, my parents wanted to shake up the list even more. They invited my brother and me into a room nonchalantly to mention they were crossing themselves off the list. We thumped both sides of our heads to dislodge the object, which had blocked our hearing.

Why on earth would our parents, who treasured family Thanksgivings, say they were deserting us? … The Maui Classic.

Yes, college basketball finally destroyed our family. OK, it could have happened, but instead my brother and I pretended we weren’t devastated by the news.

Over a few hoppy beverages on the back porch, we engineered a solid plan that would make the parents jealous. It’s funny thinking back that they would have wanted to choose our silly dinner over Hawaii, but we were young and pretty full of ourselves.

That Thanksgiving, we woke up to a quiet house, and before the crack of dawn I prepped a smallish bird with all the fixings for two. This was the beginning of our family-themed holidays. My brother and I enjoyed a fine dinner complete with crazy costumes, props, and framed photos of our parents placed in front of their empty seats.

If only we had thought to open the old address book, we could have thrown quite a bash while the folks were gone.

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