VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – A phenomenon that I’ve noticed as people live longer is the disappearance of family traditions. That sounds counterintuitive, but it has to do with not having developed one’s own traditions if there are some already in place.
To take Christmas as an example, many young people have maintained as their Christmas traditions, those of their childhoods. I don’t mean they replicate a tradition that was handed down from previous generations, I mean they continue to go to their parent’s home for Christmas until they are adults, even after they are parents themselves; their traditions involve Mom cooking the turkey, Dad carving, and whatever idiosyncratic family quirks that define Christmas as they know it. When Grandma and Grandpa shuffle off this mortal coil, they are particularly bereft at the first Christmas they have to spend on their own; they are at a loss as to how to proceed, and their own kids only know the traditions that they absorbed from their grandparents.
I am becoming conscious of this as Yolanda, JJ, and I prepare for our first Christmas in Canada as a family. We won’t be able to celebrate the season in any traditional Indonesian manner. Goat sate, fiery barbequed fish, squid stew, shrimp fried rice, and pineapple coconut pudding just don’t come together quite as easily here; Black Peter doesn’t come around to terrify the kids into good pre-Christmas behaviour, as he does in Manado and Ambon; and I’m not going to have a Christmas morning Pina Colada under a palm Christmas tree while JJ swims with his cousins in the surf.
I hadn’t had Christmas with my parents in a very long time, having been abroad during the holidays for many years. But we’re here now and for the foreseeable future, so we have no applicable traditions to settle comfortably into. Here in Canada, we have no family, my parents having died before they could meet JJ, and Yolanda’s family can’t make it here this year, so we’re starting from scratch.
We are keenly aware that everything we do is the first step in establishing a new family tradition. Presents on Christmas Day when he gets up in the morning? Or Christmas Eve at midnight? Presents under the tree for days before? Or does Santa deliver them all while he sleeps? Decisions, decisions.
One thing that will certainly become our family tradition was first started when Yolanda and I were here caring for my father during his first Christmas without my mother, who had died in November. That year was Yolanda’s first Canadian Christmas and it was a sad one. My father was clearly dying, we had just lost my mother, we were temporarily but painfully separated from JJ who was still stuck in Indonesia, and we had few friends here as we spent every waking moment caring for my father and settling my mother’s affairs. However in December, we made a little excursion to a tree farm and selected a Douglas fir that was the right size and shape, cut it down, and brought it home. My father, who had been a forestry engineer in his twenties and still had those memories talked to Yolanda about conifers and their characteristics, how to distinguish spruce pine, fir, cedar, and other evergreens; this was all new and exotic for someone who was more familiar with evergreens like ebony, mango, palm, and mangrove trees. It is a bittersweet memory and one that will become part of our family’s heritage as we take JJ out to the same place to choose a Christmas tree.
Some neighbours have already started to put Christmas lights out and JJ was awestruck when he saw the first stage go on at sundown (which is around 4.30pm here in the Great Green North). We have gone out for walks and he runs around from house to house, laughing and pointing, and saying, “Wow!” or “Huge!” the latest additions to his burgeoning lexicon. He has no idea how elaborate the displays will become over the coming days.
JJ has also absorbed the true spirit of Christmas and recognises the annual rites as the yearly celebration of retail sales and ritual mercantilism. He has become fascinated with catalogues and sales flyers; he can sense, with preternatural accuracy, a publication that contains even a single advertisement for any of: Disney Pixar Cars; any Toy Story figure, but especially Buzz Lightyear; Hot Wheels and related accessories. Where he picked up the ploy of clutching his hands in prayerful supplication and ardently beseeching, “Pleeeeeease?” I have no idea.
He seems to have lost his terror of Santa Claus. In Jakarta, perhaps because of the shopping malls’ acne and halitosis-ridden skinny teenagers draped in malodourous threadbare Santa suits and posing for photos, he ran in horror and shrieked in genuine panic when he encountered any depiction of the jolly old elf. Now he appears to have accepted that, if he expects to be showered with gifts by Saint Nick, he had better learn to tolerate him. As pragmatic as only a three year-old can be, he is starting to demonstrate a mild fondness for Santa, which as Christmas approaches appears to be evolving into a genuine affection. I expect that by Christmas Eve it will have matured into a healthy idol worship.
I’ve always hated Christmas; that’s no secret. I’m a devout atheist, so I have little affection for the way that the Christians have usurped a pagan solstice celebration, and now accuse non-Christians of having lost the “real meaning” of the holiday; I have no fondness for the worship of conspicuous mercantile overconsumption and nutritional overindulgence; and I find the forced and competitive joyfulness profoundly depressing. I despise the competitiveness that surrounds the gift giving and receiving; I want to blow chunks when I hear the traditional whining about the left “taking Christ out of Christmas” where he never belonged in the first place. I am deeply saddened by the spike in domestic violence and the surge in suicides that are intrinsic realities of the “festive” season.
On the other hand, I like the fact that families spend time together. I thoroughly enjoy giving
presents to my loved ones and watching them as they open their gifts. I like an excuse for a pre-breakfast cognac and eggnog. I like preparing a traditional turkey dinner and taking an afternoon nap while the bird is in the oven. I am happy at any attempts people make to open their hearts to the underprivileged people they ignore for the rest of the year.
So, for perhaps the first time in my adult life I am planning to enjoy Christmas rather than merely endure it. I’m explaining to JJ that at this time of the year we increase the quality and volume of the weekly donation we make to the local food bank; besides the cans of vegetables and packages of pasta, we give some cans of ham and mincemeat as well as some candy canes and chocolates; we’ll take him to buy some toys for the firefighter’s children’s charity. Yolanda will show me how to prepare at least one traditional Indonesian dish, and I’ll prepare a turkey and all the usual trimmings (no Brussels sprouts, though; they taste like boiled Sumo wrestler’s athletic supports). JJ will open presents and dig through his stocking, which will have been hung by the chimney with care; he’ll listen to Christmas songs and practice the English versions; Yolanda and I will have raw oysters and mimosas for breakfast, On Boxing Day we’ll have friends and neighbours over and drink mulled wine and eat canapés in front of the fire while the kids show one another what Santa brought them, and I’ll actually enjoy a time that I’ve never been able to process cheerfully.
It remains to be seen how this all plays out, but one way or another we’re consciously going to begin the process of creating holiday traditions that will be eagerly anticipated as Christmas approaches in years to come. I will be delighted if JJ absorbs the idea that this time of the year is a good time to reflect on the benefits he enjoys and think about how he can contribute to raising the happiness levels of other people; I don’t want him to experience the annual cynical bitterness and depression that I always associated with Christmas. I want to share with him an inclination to charity, benevolence, and kindness to strangers; since this is the time of year at which lip service is traditionally paid to those notions; it might be a good time to begin to help him make them a part of his life.
Peace and good will to all!