Two years ago, Honey gave me my first digital camera for Christmas, a Cannon SD800 Elph, and I've run with it. I was never much of a photographer, but thanks to the miracle of digital photography, it's rapidly becoming a hobby of mine. I'm teaching myself how to compose shots. I have a photographer friend with whom, some afternoon I'm going to go on a photo safari, and at some point, I'd like to get a consumer copy of Photoshop so I can edit my work. Thanks to my new hobby, I've begun looking at the mundane with fresher, more curious eyes. It feels good.
One of the gifts I got for Christmas this year was an all-in-one printer/scanner/photo printer. I've taken all these wonderful photos, but they still live on my laptop, or in some cases, cyberspace. It would be fantastic to finally start framing some of them and dressing the very naked walls of our house. Yesterday, I spent about an hour and a half scanning old photos from my childhood. There are hundreds more to go, but I knocked out quite a few. Including some from Christmases past. The image on the right is one such photo. It's from 1988. (I'm the amber-mopped tomboy in the orange tie-dye shirt, near the center.) Our family flew down to Mexico City to spend the holiday with our many cousins there. It was the first time I'd been on a plane since I was pre-literate, and I remember being afriad to fly. Then the downing of PanAm 103 a day or two before our departure convinced me that our deaths were imminent.
It's inevitable this time of year that my thoughts turn to past Christmases and reviewing old pictures certainly aid the nostalgia. Christmas isn't as fantastical for me as it once was, and I'm trying to figure out why. It's not the Santa thing. I never believed in Santa. If not yet the why, I can at least pin down when Christmas started losing some of its pixie dust. Junior high.
1988 was probably the last truly exciting Christmas for me. I was 12. Before we flew to Mexico City, we stopped in Dallas to spend Christmas Eve with my mom's side of the family, like we did virtually every Christmas Eve. I played with my cousins, we ate the tamale dinner Grandma fixed us, watched whatever Christmas special was on TV, played board games, unwrapped presents ... Christmassy stuff. When we got to Mexico, the party really began. At my cousin Carlos' church, we played with no-bullshit pinatas; no papier mache Sesame Street characters. These pinatas were star-shaped, with shells made of terra-cotta and filled with sugar cane and peanuts. And they were massive. And there were many. When a piece of pinata pottery fell on my brother's head, he sought my mom's arms for comfort until he realized that every other kid was getting beaned by breaking pinatas, and went back in. Pinatas are not for the permission-slip happy American weak in Mexico. For days we were surrounded by family. We ate good meals every night. There was laughter everywhere. The gifts we got were either homemade - like the crocheted clown doll my aunt made me - or typically Mexican-craft like the leather purse I got. I was introduced to new traditions like Dia de los Tres Reyes and la rosca. The former is also known as Epiphany or Three Kings Day, the traditional 12th day of Christmas when the wisemen's visit is celebrated. La Rosca is the bundt-like cake served on January 6, though we did ours early, on the first (we ate several, come to think of it); a baby charm is placed in the cake and whoever gets it has good luck. In Mexico City, I was tickled to discover that for every kiosk set up on the city square with Santa offering to listen to Christmas wishes, there were two or three kiosks of the magi offering to do the same. Christmas is when you get your little gifts, there; Epiphany is when you get your "real" gifts. It's something we kind of adopted when my family went broke. Our gifts were never huge to begin with - a cassette from a band I liked was usually the extent of it - but extending the gift-giving until Epiphany bought my family a little time time to buy on sale. 1988 was a Christmas brimming with non-stop celebration. It was the last one I can remember like that.
Within a month, we'd moved across the state; Dad had entered the ministry full-time (an overall great move for him, but a damper on Christmas from then out) and there was no doubt about it: puberty had completed its angsty takeover of my body. From a celestial high to a rocky low. There are many things I like about Dad being a minister: he's a good preacher; he's a great listener and a wonderfully sympathetic man; it's his passion; he's knowledgable about context (and thus not literalist). However, the one thing I really don't like about him being a minister is that he's tied to whatever church he's serving for Christmas Eve.
When I was 13, I was devastated to learn that we would not get to drive up to the panhandle or to Dallas to spend the evening with mom's entire family as I had every Christmas Eve of my life until that point. We had to stay put for our church's candlelight service. I love Chistmas Eve candlelight services. After all the happy songs, the readings and prayers, when the lights go down and the sanctuary is filled with scores of tiny flickering flames and we're all singing "Silent Night" and then the accompanist stops so that we're all just singing a capella ... damn, there are few things finer. But to be compelled to stay? Couldn't this church just wing it without a minister for Christmas? Come ON! Christmas EVE! WTF?
From then on, Christmas became less magical. The songs in school, the games and the family hoopla began disappearing. We had to stay put, so Dad could preside over Christmas Eve services and we lived in such a remote part of the state that no one ever came to visit us for the holiday. (Which made me mad, as we often piled into the car on Christmas morning to drive 10 hours across the state to Dallas. Only to miss half the cousins, as they'd all returned home; and to miss the tamales, as they'd all been eaten. Why couldn't they reciprocate?) Christmas 1993 was a lovely anomaly, however, because 8 or 9 of our Mexican cousins came up and partied with us in our burg. They visited for a week. We spoke so much Spanish in the house that I actually dreamt in Spanish. (Era fantastico!)
These days, we have no set family gatherings with our extended families. His sister lives nearby, so we often visit her family. But I often feel something just one-off is missing. Our nephews have no cousins with which to play, so they either disappear to play on the computer or whine for attention. We adults don't play board games; we just talk about work and life and it's just ... a visit. My family lives in Texas, and with Dad unable to travel due to ecclesiastical duties, it's incumbent upon us to visit if we're to celebrate Christmas together - which we've only done once in the 10 years Honey and I've been Christmassing together. But even there, my brother just watches football and we just ... visit. No music and merriment. Honey's parents live on the West Coast. Sometimes they come out for Christmas or we go there, but it's just ... a visit. Once we played poker with his dad and nephews, and frankly that afternoon saved Christmas for me. It was so good to play something. My brother is marrying a girl from Wisconsin. He's up there now. She wants to never spend Christmas away from her family, so I have no idea if we'll ever get to see him for the holiday again. Which sucks. The older I get, the more disconnected I feel from family fun. Even when we see family, it seems so chaotic and not as cheerful as it used to be. I really, really miss playing boardgames with aunts and uncles. I miss the tamale buffet. I miss the cheesy holiday TV shows playing in the room where the kids are (ahem, please not around the adults). I miss poorly banging out "Joy to the World" on whosever piano is available. I think it's time to start some new more mobile Christmas traditions that bind us together. But I don't quite know which or how.
Honey and I have an accidental tradition of listening to David Sedaris read his "Santaland Diaries," either as we trim the tree or on Christmas Eve. Maybe I'll learn to make tamales like Grandma and insist on that wherever we go. Or maybe insist on more boardgames or puzzles. I love boardgames at Christmas. Christmas, for me, is about three big things: glittery cultural accoutrement, the breathless anticipation leading up to Christmas morning, and cozying up to family and enjoying eachother. Each feels like they're falling shorter as I grow older. I want to learn how to get the magic back.