Christmas morning: The sun rises above a snowy, suburban neighborhood; children in matching jammies wake to the scent of cocoa and peppermint, and the subtle tinkling of bells. What could that mean? Why, Santa has arrived, of course!
Leaping from bed, the happy, well-mannered children put on their robes and slippers and scuttle adorably into the family room, where a beautiful tree and dozens of gifts lay in wait.
Mom and dad, ever organized, are already downstairs relaxing on the sofa, sipping coffee. They beam proudly as their young joyfully open and greet each new treasure with appreciation or congratulating their siblings on their own troves.
This perfect, precious scene played out every holiday season of my childhood … mostly in my mind, in books, or on TV. In reality, this wondrous scene happened to me exactly NEVER. In fact, I have yet to meet anyone — parent or child — who can confirm that this idyllic vision ever has occurred in the entire history of the human race.
No. Christmas is a messy, tricky business that, when done right, might have a few disappointments in the face of a tide of unreasonable expectations. When done wrong, however, this beautiful holiday can become one of the loneliest, most godawful days of the year.
And it doesn’t help that Madison Avenue and Hollywood have fed us all a steady diet of those unreasonable expectations for decades.
FIRST EXPECTATION: SNOW. In my reality, ‘White Christmas’ refers to fog. There is no snow, nor has there ever been any of the beautiful, glistening stuff on my holiday.
But that’s fine; I like the fog. It’s how I’ve come to define how the weather should be this time of year. Conversely, a Christmas that’s sunny and 75? Horrible. (As a native Californian, it’s in my genes to complain about perfect weather.)
SECOND EXPECTATION: SCENTS AND SOUNDS. So far back as I recall, I’ve never once wakened on Christmas morning to the scent of cocoa and the sound of jingle bells. More accurately, I was already lying awake, when at the crack of dawn I was startled by the scent of stinky cheese from the breath of a sibling screeching, “IT’S TIME, IT’S TIME” — which, admittedly, is a differently wonderful way to wake on Christmas (especially as a 5-year old).
THIRD EXPECTATION: ADORABLE CHAOS. Like the phony, storied children, my siblings and I did leap from our beds, which was followed by rushing around like lunatics in our pre-tree-unveiling chores.
At our house, Christmas officially began after each kid passed INSPECTION. Literally, that’s how my parents referred to it, in all-capital letters like that. Every bed made, every tooth brushed.
We each had to be presentable, in case one of the many photos actually turned out nice enough for posterity’s sake. Faces washed, hair combed, robes and slippers (presuming they still fit) on.
My father, in his Santa hat and Ebeneezer Scrooge nightie, would then go from room to room, verifying that all items were checked off his mental list. Woe unto any child that slowed the train by lagging on any of these requirements, lest they perish from the verbal lashings and painful eye-rolls of their impatient siblings.
Forced to wait at the end of the hallway until the entire tribe was assembled, we were then permitted to WALK around the corner and into the family room for our first view of the tree in all her glory.
There was no touching the tree. There was certainly no rushing forward and touching gifts. Go sit on the couch and be patient.
When we all settled in, one gloriously lucky child would be selected as Santa’s helper — whose sole job, naturally, was to pass out the gifts AS THEY WERE HANDED to the helper by SANTA. We took turns opening gifts and after each round of presents, we scooped up our wrappings and threw them into the waiting giant Hefty bag.
Sure, we might have been adorable, but any chaos was organized.
FOURTH EXPECTATION: HAPPY GIFT PERFECTION. In the fairy tale version of Christmas, notice how no one is ever disappointed or struck dumb by some well-meaning but truly horrible gift? Not so in my family.
Oh, we’d put on brave faces, sure. But if kindness was king, humor was emperor. There were always laughs, smiles and appreciation, but between siblings, there were occasionally tears (“ He always goes first!”), grumbling (patience is a learned virtue), the gnashing of teeth (It’s HARD to wait your turn), misunderstandings and secret disappointments ( I really wanted a red one).
But still the appreciation.
In the end, I think the only thing about our mornings that ever rang true to the fairy tale Christmas was the general feel the parents had for the kids.
Granted, smiling beatifically at us was never much my folks’ style (and never much deserved, truth be told), but they always created a special, memorable holiday filled with our very own quirky traditions. And given my druthers, I much prefer our loud, fun, occasionally emotional — but always loving — holiday, over the plastic Hollywood fairy tale.