The Ghosts of Christmas Past

December 23, 2021
December 23, 2021 Betsy Voreacos

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

While an enigma to many, I am no stranger to myself. I know exactly why I view, spew and do the things I do. Yet, there is one mystery I have yet to solve. One feel that I feel that I can’t figure out.

I don’t know when I turned or why I recoil, but my pure and utter disdain for the recurring holiday called Christmas has me completely baffled. I am not destitute or lonely, distraught or unhappy. Rather, my life is what the sad and sorry covet as they scroll through social media. I have it all. An ever-loving spouse, three kind and (somewhat) well-adjusted adult children, a house on a diverse and friendly street, a flagstone front porch, a work-from-home job dating back decades before it was mainstream, a peace sign dangling from the dogwood tree in the front yard and until recently, a battered but beloved mini-van parked in the driveway. For heaven’s sake, I even have a big, old goofy Labrador who barks nonsensically at squirrels, passersby and delivery trucks.

I grew up just as idyllically in a neighborhood filled with kids and dogs roaming free and far. Memories of holidays were always happy with Christmas just slightly edging out Mischief Night as the childhood favorite. For my family, the season started the second weekend in December when we piled into the wood-paneled station wagon to buy our Christmas tree from the Lions’ Club parking lot. We chose the one with the lowest price tag (never, ever more than $10 which, according to my father, was already highway robbery). It was decorated with new and ancient Christmas balls and silver tinsel that we saved from year to year. It was dressed and ready for my parents’ annual cocktail party, the highlight of which was witnessing their annual imbibing of alcohol.

Every Christmas Eve after dinner we would walk with our father through neighboring streets that were lined with candle-lit paper bags. Upon our return, we’d be shooed off to our rooms where we struggled to sleep, but somehow did. Christmas morning dawned with the four sisters perched on the carpeted staircase, waiting for the parent-approved hour of half-past seven. We barreled into the living room and opened our stockings to the stench of the inexplicable delicacy of boiled kidneys permeating the air. Following the tease of our new toothbrushes and chewing gum – pepsin-flavored chiclets for me, peppermint for the others – and more than a few furtive glances at the piles of presents covered with bedsheets, we wolfed down our waffles, grousing and groaning at the laborious pace that my father savored his kidneys.

Finally, we were set loose and tore through our presents in minutes flat. Except of course for my sister, Emily, who took her good sweet time so it would seem like she got more than the rest of us. Though our gifts were thoughtful and abundant, I don’t remember much beyond the remote control race track that I got and the Frye boots that I didn’t.

Ten minutes later we were out the door to check out the neighborhood loot. First stop was Margaret’s where she greeted me with a wistful wink the year we had dispelled the Santa Claus myth once and for all. Accidentally-on-purpose while rummaging through the attic, she and I discovered the very gifts that were now under the tree. We then collected Kit from her house at the top of the hill and went en masse to see Carol who lived next door. Carol was never allowed to have more than one friend at her house at a time and so we spent our formative years being pit one against the other for her vacillating attention. But on Christmas morning even her mother, who had a nervous hum, couldn’t keep us at bay. Perhaps it was the holiday spirit, or maybe she got secret pleasure out of our wide eyes and jealous gasps as Carol causally opened then flung dozens and dozens of gifts aside.

One year Carol got a horse for Christmas.

Later in the day my father helped my mother put the leaf into the green-cloth-covered dining room table to make room for the turkey and all-the-trimmings. The hutch that loomed large against the wall was decorated to the nines with Royal Copenhagen Christmas plates, old-fashioned Santa Claus mugs, live greens and holiday-themed china figurines. Nanny arrived mid-afternoon with armfuls of artfully-wrapped, real-ribboned gifts, all items from our lists that we thought had been dismissed. Uncle Tony came a bit later donned in a suit that smelled like mothballs, carrying a box of Russell Stover chocolates containing too many nut nougats and too few butter creams.

And just like that, Christmas was over.

I don’t recall the interim years, except for the Christmas that I didn’t get engaged when my ever-loving date took me on a romantic date to see the Nutcracker. (A story in and of itself.) But boy do I remember the three-kid Christmases.

I kept a color-coded excel spread sheet in my computer. Presents were purchased and recorded by person, price, wrap status and hiding place. Somewhere, somehow I came up with the number ten and that’s how many gifts they each got. Granted, a Matchbox toy car (99 cents) or a leopard-print headband (79 cents)  counted as gifts, but still had to be wrapped and recorded. In wrapping paper uniquely color-coded to each individual. In other words, the daughter’s gifts were all in the gold angel paper. The middle child’s all in stripes. The last of the litter in red and green puppy print. After they finally went to bed on Christmas Eve, I’d tip-toe to the hiding place and drag the presents up the stairs, heart pounding in fear of being found out. I’d toss and turn all night, worried that I had wrapped a gift in a sibling’s paper, purchased the wrong Tonka truck or that the Little House on the Prarie books that I loved as a youth would be barely acknowledged, let alone appreciated.

Come Christmas morning, the kids would tear into the living room where we’d open our stockings, filled with toothbrushes and chewing gum (all items wrapped in the same color-coded paper). Then after a pancake breakfast we’d tackle the fifty presents that were under the tree.

Usually the Maryland grandparents came to town, mercifully staying in a nearby hotel. Grandpa would babysit Christmas Eve while Grandma joined us at church. They’d come back to the house on Christmas morning once the Santa Claus commotion had been contained, in hopes that the gifts they brought wouldn’t be lost in the shuffle.

Dinner was served in our eat-in kitchen, decorated with Christmas cards pinned to red and green plaid ribbons that hung from the windows. In short-order form, dinner was often a lasagne made the night before, buttered noodles for the one who wouldn’t eat hamburger, grilled cheese for the one who didn’t eat noodles, bagged salad and ice cream.

The grandparents, exhausted retreated to the hotel. My spouse and I tossed out the wrapping paper (and a Barbie shoe or two) and packed up the car for the trip to Pennsylvania the next day to see my side of the family.

And just like that, Christmas was over.

Until of course two days later when we celebrated the middle kid’s birthday. And two days after that when we celebrated the ever-loving’s birthday. And two days after that when somehow we felt compelled to celebrate New Year’s Eve, usually at Anne Hare’s house with all the dang kids in tow.

And though I no longer color-code the gifts, I still keep a spread sheet. I still yearn to see my adult children jump for joy when they open the box of overpriced Nikes and Sephora gift cards, requested via direct link, lest I deviate. I want them to well up with gratitude when they see the sentimental sentiment I had framed for their apartment. I want my spouse to pretend to love the Javy Baez Mets jersey even though he’s no longer a Met (no wonder it was so cheap). I still want the perfect, effortless Christmas of my childhood, filled with nothing but joy.

Recently, I was shocked to learn that my memories may not be completely intact. My mother swears that she didn’t wrap a single gift, hence why they were draped in bedsheets. She admits now that she didn’t take that Christmas Eve walk with us because if she didn’t have that one hour to herself, she would implode. And that more than once, the turkey was dry, the mashed potatoes lumpy and the cranberries soupy.

Yet to me, it was all perfectly perfect.

As I suffer in silence (and more often than not aloud), all I can hope is that my kids know that beneath the holiday haze there is nothing but love. That they accept that there’s no such thing as perfection. That we all make mistakes. And that most of them can be reversed, either through a heartfelt apology an Amazon return. I want them to know that there will always be another meal even if the Brussels sprouts are burned or the chicken divan disgusting.

As for me, maybe if I let go of Christmas past and try to be Christmas present, I may surprise myself and once again feel the joy. But in the meantime, if all else fails, there’s always that bottle of bourbon beckoning from beyond.

Merry Christmas to all!