In my family, we always thought of Christmas as my dad’s day. It’s not clear why, and after having squeezed the life into a few family Christmases myself, I can empathize with the repressed rage my mum must have experienced over this.
She’d spend weeks, months even, baking, cleaning, getting us new clothes, preparing us and the house for big parties with neighbours and friends. When family visited from far away, she sorted out beds and meals and church and every bit of the framework. And then my dad would step forward and lead the festivities. He’d gather us at the piano, and we’d all sing or play along on whatever instrument we were torturing at the time. He’d dominate the jigsaw table, hiding pieces from us, only to tap them in place with a braggart’s finger, triumph on his face. Just him and us. Mum wasn’t a part. She was in the kitchen.
We’d be honoured to accompany him as co-conspirators when he asked us to dash about with him at the last minute, seeking just that perfect present, running in and out of shops before the final closing on Christmas Eve. We’d be forcibly marched out of Lechmere, a shop filled with all sorts of cool technology, the clerks glaring at us as the overhead blared that, “The store is now closed. Please make your way to a cashier now.” He was either extremely lucky or had spent more time thinking about things than it seemed. He’d always find the perfect gift for my mother– a soft green velour pantsuit that highlighted her gorgeous eyes was one I remember. I don’t remember many others, focused as I was at the time on my own goodies, but I do remember her cries of delight.
Mum never got the same reaction. She’s have spent weeks in agonies over what to get him, and whether he’d like it, only to get a lukewarm reaction from him. Her gift somehow was always the wrong size or not wanted and dad’s disappointment would show.
Tension inevitably grew as the day passed. At the time I was unsympathetic, but back then I didn’t know the Christmas fatigue that overwhelms mothers, or whoever else gets the task of making the day happen. Now I do.
Dad had fun, though –the clown at the party, he came on stage and managed the presents (most bought by mum). My older brother, an acquisitive lad with some Smaug-like tendencies, was forced to exchange one of his past items for the coveted new one while Dad looked on with glee. My brother collected cameras, so my dad would gift my younger brother a piece of the new camera my older brother wanted. He would have to sacrifice one of his treasured older cameras to get the piece he wanted, and he visibly hated that thought. Both boys would eventually be happy, my father could economize, but we always knew his real joy lay in watching the reluctant exchange.
Then, just like the Grinch after his heart growth, dad would preside over the dinner table to carve the Roast Beast. Ever the perfect host, he’d regale the table with stories and jokes, puzzles and games (and far too many puns). Meanwhile my mum would carry in the meal she’d prepared, serve it, clear away the dishes, and tidy up the mess. We kids would all flee the table and follow him like imprinted ducklings into the living room to play with our new treats, abandoning mum to the kitchen tasks.
We were heartless.
Still, at Christmas, I always think of my dad, of his smiles, his music, his obvious love for us shining forth. Meanwhile, the softer, more hidden love that showed in all the backbreaking labour my mum did keeps getting forgotten.
My dad even died on Christmas Eve, taking his light away on the day we most associated with him, ensuring we’d always think of him first at that magical time. I’m sure he’s laughing about that even now. Somewhere.
My mother is probably laughing, too. She died on Mother’s Day a few years later, a final kick at the ‘who’s more important’ can. So she has her own spot where we can never forget her.
I wish she’d been around longer, long enough for me to let her know how much I enjoyed her efforts, understood her holiday fatigue, was so grateful for all of it. I don’t think I ever did.
Christmas (or any holiday) magic takes time, effort, hard work. Cheers to all who manage to create it for those you love.