By Esther Curry
One woman who grew up without December holidays discovers her festive spirit
I never experienced the thrill of waking up on the morning of December 25 to discover what Santa brought during those hours of peaceful childhood slumber. Of course, the old saying “You can’t miss what you never had” rings true — I didn’t have the notion to care. I did wonder to myself, if Santa did come to our house, how would he get inside? Our mobile home had only a wood burning stove with a very small pipe that let the smoke out. I knew it wouldn’t work for Santa Claus, even if we had a tree and all that stuff. The holiday was just not meant for us.
At the age of 30, I only have three Christmases under my belt, and I still struggle to fully engage in the holiday. As a child, I never dreamed of meeting Santa or getting a gift from him. I remember thinking he seemed like a nice enough guy when I saw his face on a Coca-Cola can, but mostly, whenever I saw him in retail stores with the other kids, I wondered what the point was.
When you are raised without holidays, the calendar is labeled a bit differently. I was raised in Florida where there are two main seasons: summer and winter. We didn’t plan or look forward to any holidays, and we didn’t buy holiday outfits. We only needed coats in the wintertime and swimsuits in the summer. Other than perhaps a passing comment because the bank was closed or the mail was not delivered, Christmas was never mentioned. I was fully detached from the celebration, but I was OK with that. When you grow up in a small religious community, fear stops a lot of thoughts and ideas.
When I try to dig up any Christmas memories from the past, my mind searches fervently for something with red and green or Santa Claus, and nothing much comes up. I do remember one time my two best friends and I found a Santa Claus photo area in the mall, and we pretended to be involved with the festivities, taking a silly picture of ourselves for a photo album. But that’s as far as our holiday spirit went. All three of us knew that when we got home, there would be no wrapped presents underneath a tree. In fact, there was no tree at all — it was just a winter month, nothing special.
Buying my first Christmas tree a few years back was more complicated than I imagined. I decided I wanted a traditional tree — not a snowy white one, or a brightly colored one, but a simple tree, reminiscent of what I never had.
When I got to the store, I realized there were more options than I had imagined. I didn’t know if I should get the pre-lit tree or buy a string of lights. If I got a tree that was not pre-lit, how many strings of lights would it require? Luckily, I brought my older sister along, who had celebrated Christmas several years back after she moved away from home. She advised me to get a pre-lit tree and helped me pick out other decorative necessities. The world of holiday cheer and possibilities opened up to me, welcoming me into its colored glow.
Back at the house, I was amazed at how easy the artificial tree was to put together. It was like playing with a Fisher-Price stack toy: the biggest branches went on the bottom, and the smallest ones went on the top. And placing the ornaments was just like it was in the movies; you just stood there and decorated the branches gracefully — there is no wrong way to do it. The large red bow topper finished off the tree’s traditional feel, but the sweeping ribbon strands were tricky to get right. Finally, the work was done, complete with a fluffy skirt to hide the unsightly cords and stand.
The whole time I was setting up the tree, my husband didn’t have any interest in the process. You see, he also didn’t grow up with Christmas, and like me, he had no emotional attachment to the holiday. He observed with skepticism as I worked, but once the tree was bathed in its glow of lights, he admitted it was pretty, and he even seemed to enjoy it. When you marry someone who came from the same strict environment and explore the new world together, you don’t get much outside influence. That said, it can be a slow process to change your ways. But as I was sitting on the couch with my feet up, admiring the tree, my husband stood up and placed a shiny ball ornament onto its branches. I knew at this moment he had accepted the tree as his own, and we started our new journey as people who celebrate Christmas, with the obvious evidence of a tree.
That first Christmas, the only plan was to make breakfast and coffee, then open presents. I didn’t have childlike excitement while opening my gifts; but all the same, it was special and sweet. I will never experience that magic young kids feel on Christmas morning, but that’s all right — I am a fully grown adult with the gift of freedom to think and do what feels right.
Today, anyone who comes through our door in December would assume we are just like everyone else. We no longer need to explain that we didn’t grow up with Christmas or the reason we don’t have a tree. Some years we celebrate the day with friends, and some years we are traveling. Christmas is a wild card every year; I would not say we have traditions. But when I do have Christmas at home, with my very own tree, it feels cozy and right. It feels like my Christmas spirit coming alive, one tree at a time.
Originally published in the December 2019 issue of Skirt. Magazine https://www.skirt.com
Edited by Denise K. James