When it comes to Christmas songs, my heart beats to the rhythm of The Little Drummer Boy. I turn the volume up when it starts to play. I realize this puts me at odds with many adults who have this title on their list of least-liked holiday classics. My adoration has its roots in one specific Christmas-time memory that involved a few of my favorite things. Well, two. A book and a big brother.
I was six years old, and for Christmas I had received a copy of Ezra Jack Keats’ picture book based on the song, with amazing can’t-stop-gazing illustrations. I could read it myself, albeit slowly. But I still preferred being read to, because that way I got attention and a book. With five older siblings, my odds were pretty good of roping someone in. On this particular day, it was the brother who is ten years my senior. So sixteen at the time.
The age difference between us was optimal for the development of hero worship. He was the sibling most often in charge of me, at least in those days, probably because the older kids were already wrapped up in getting their adult lives going. He was a pretty great babysitter — a patient and kind listener, who always made me feel safe. I thought he hung the moon.
He not only read the words in the book, he helped me think about the meanings and themes, asking occasionally if I understood or had any questions. My brother explained the ox and lamb keeping time and other mysteries of the text. But more important, he helped me understand the underlying message, that even a young child (like myself!) has something to offer. No matter if you are small, or poor in money, you can still be of service and use whatever abilities you possess to bring joy to others. Looking back, I see it’s what he was doing for me by offering his time and his understanding to help me enjoy the book and song even more.
I’m now in my fifties and he is in his sixties. We live in different states, but he remains an amazing big brother. I still think he hung the moon.
Considering who raised them, my kids couldn’t help growing up with a dark sense of humor. It helps get us through hard times, minor and major. They’re both in their early twenties now, long past the age where I could shield them from the troubles of the world. Past the age where I even want to. It’s a relief in a lot of ways, being able to speak openly with your kids about big issues.
It’s been a year of living since last Christmas, which means a year with a few problems mixed in with our joys. Car repairs. My younger son, the 20-year-old, has been dealing with annoying health issues off and on for several months. Our washing machine is about to give up the ghost — in a shuddering exorcism, by the looks of things. My firstborn has roommate issues. Deep cuts in benefits at my workplace. Some deaths of loved ones. I hurt my back a couple of weeks ago, and could barely move for about three days. Which meant Christmas prep was rushed and last minute. Then there are the things happening on the world stage — refugees needing asylum, climate change, markets crashing.
But in the middle of all of that, we’ve been able to foment a spirit of celebration within the family around Christmas. Granted, the celebratory spirit has an edge to it. “Merry Crisis!” read the text from my oldest a few days ago. It quickly became our unified holiday greeting. With every newly developing issue — Merry Crisis! Yeah, the world’s going to hell, but we’ve got each other and we’re going to make what joy we can.
I ordered some gifts to be shipped to Kid One, thinking we wouldn’t be seeing them for Christmas. They live four hours away, too far for a day trip. Parties on neither end could do an overnight, for various reasons. I thought I was okay with being apart, since we message all the time.
But I got sad as the day approached, and sadness is sometimes the mother of invention. At nearly the last minute, I pitched a Christmas Eve plan to meet halfway. I looked at maps, researched restaurants that might be open, and found the perfect spot to meet, a two-hour drive from each end. That perfect spot was an IHOP in Quincy, Illinois.
It worked out. It wasn’t the Christmas get together of days gone by, but it was a new innovation that turned out nicely. Kid One brought along their significant other and we had a great visit, filled with our usual brand of humor, leading to lots of laughter. In case anyone wonders, we left a sizable tip for the wait staff working on the holiday. Without them, I wouldn’t have gotten to visit with my (23-year-old) baby.
If there’s a lesson for me, it’s to let go of what I think a Christmas celebration should be or what it has been, and to improvise as need to make it what it can be.
I know some people will hate me for this, but I love holiday music. Almost all of it – traditional carols, sacred hymns, pop/rock selections, novelty numbers. Just about anything except that one about the kid picking out Christmas shoes for his mom to die in. I spend the month of December belting out the lyrics of myriad winter celebration songs. Any time I find myself alone in my home or car.
I fondly recall the days of my childhood when I’d participate with enthusiasm in school choir programs, sing along with the radio in front of anyone, and generally enjoy the sound of my own voice. Back before I realized I was kind of terrible at singing.
By the time I reached my teen years, I kept my not-quite tune-making to myself. Other teens are not ones to let you keep your delusions of adequacy. In church, where everyone was expected to make a joyful noise, I lip-synched behind my hymnal.
During my young adult years I didn’t sing and didn’t sing. And I missed it. I missed being able have fun with a song for the simple pleasure of it, with no worries about how good I was, with no self-consciousness. For me, singing had become all self-consciousness and no pleasure. Then I had babies.
I sang to my babies while rocking them, and they didn’t criticize me. They even seemed to find some comfort in my voice. And as they got a little older, we sang Christmas carols and “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “Old McDonald” and it was a blast. When I volunteered at preschool, I sang along even though there were other adults present, because I wanted to set a good example around embracing music without embarrassment. I *felt* embarrassed, but I tried not to show it. Singing was once again part of my life. It was a great unexpected gift that came with motherhood.
Then the kids got even older and we stopped doing any of that. I’ve spent the last few years keeping my vocal efforts a solitary activity. Secret even. Back to treating it as a shameful activity.
But today – today I went to the Christmas party at my mom’s nursing home. We had carols. I sang along, y’all. I was surrounded by 85 and 90-year-olds, many of whom suffer ailments that have pretty well trashed their voices. But most of them were giving it their best shot, so why shouldn’t I? Besides, my mom is one person who never said a negative word about my singing, no matter how it made her suffer. Some of the aides might have looked at me askance, but I had a good time. I think I even hit the correct notes a few times.
This was huge for me. I sang along. I didn’t hum, or stick to smiling and tapping my foot just off the beat. I sang. I’m ready for my participation award.
It’s Christmas afternoon and I’m still in my pajamas. On the couch. Coughing up a lung. This holiday isn’t going as planned. But then I’ve always heard the way to make the Universe laugh is to make a plan. It must be chuckling up a storm. I’m trying to laugh along and make the best of it. For instance, right after typing that sentence I added to the gaiety by accidentally dumping out the contents of a nearly-full economy-sized bag of cough drops. Ha ha ha!
After my mother spent several hours at our house on Thanksgiving, it became obvious she can no longer handle so much disruption in her day. Her back problems flared worse than ever and she was exhausted. It took her days to recover. I had a little moment when my husband, kids and I were decorating our Christmas tree, our ornaments including a few vintage ones that survived my childhood. I experienced a wave of sadness knowing my mom will never decorate a tree with me again. She’ll likely never come to our house again. I also had a few seconds of irritability over the fact that humanity hasn’t developed teleportation technology yet, because it would solve this problem. She could beam in for a few minutes and then beam back to the nursing home. I settled for taking a photo of the tree to show her.
I asked Mom if she thought she could handle a short outing to a restaurant. She believes she can, so our plan was to pick her up on Christmas Eve and go to IHOP, her favorite. For today, I thought I’d make a lasagna and some sides to have at home and at some time during the day pop over to visit Mom again. But over the weekend I developed a tickle in my throat, the same tickle reported by some of my local acquaintances before they fell all-out sick. Yep, I caught the thing that’s going around. Also, over the weekend, one of my molars broke and I managed to acquire a second-degree burn on my arm while removing a dish from the oven. At some point, my life started to resemble a sit-com plot. However, if I’ve learned anything from my mother, it’s to make the best of the situation, whatever it is.
Though I’m sad not to be with my mom on Christmas, I’m reminded once again how blessed I am with family, both immediate and extended. My husband and my 15-year-old son went over yesterday to see my mom (the 18-year-old caught what I have, so stayed home) and take her gift plus the staff gift bag I put together.
Let me go off the rails here, and recommend this idea for nurses, aides and housekeeping staff at skilled nursing facilities. Since there are so many of them, I put together a bag of items for the break room: hot cocoa mix, including regular and sugar-free, a variety of teas, popcorn, mixed nuts, snack crackers, etc. It’s easy and covers everyone.
Back to family now – my two guys had a good visit with my mom. Plus I put out the word to far-flung relatives that I couldn’t see her on Christmas, so she might appreciate some phone calls. When I called her about an hour ago, she was thrilled to report her phone had been ringing all yesterday and today. This cheers me up.
Also, my spouse and kids make the holiday fun. We’re a geeky crew who all like a good joke. After my two teens went on errands without me the other day, a package appeared under our tree with a gift tag saying it was to the whole family, and from:
The kids come by this creative packaging honestly. Here’s what my husband gave me this year:
It’s hard not to have fun when the people around you are putting so much effort into making the event enjoyable.
Our three cats have helped, too, taking turns sitting on my lap.
Then there’s the Pandora Christmas station for holiday cheer, and Netflix to give me a chance to watch some of those movies I’ve been meaning to watch over the years. I finally saw “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. Not much of a story, after all, but the singing and dancing is wonderful. I tried watching “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and now take comfort in the knowledge I haven’t been missing much. After 15 minutes, I switched to “Men in Black.” Much more entertaining. I’ll have to dial up the sequels.
While I languish on the couch, my family members have been foraging in lieu of a Christmas dinner appearing for them. Macaroni and cheese has been cooked, and we’ve wiped out the back stock of canned soup. Meanwhile, IHOP awaits for the day when we’re all well again. And I still have the ingredients for lasagna.
As my kids get older, the calendar only gets more challenging. We still want the same family holiday traditions, but it takes more planning. For instance, we always buy a Christmas tree from the nearby Optimist Club lot. It’s a mere five-minute drive from our house. Easy peasy, right? Until we start looking at schedules.
We definitely wanted to get it done this past weekend, so we’d have time to enjoy the tree before it came back down. We couldn’t go Friday evening, because my husband had to work late. I was scheduled to work all day Saturday. Then my daughter had a thing Saturday evening. Sunday, I’d promised to buy some supplies for my mom and take them over in the afternoon. And there was a meeting I needed to attend in the evening. Meantime, my son had a collaborative homework project he had to schedule with some other kids.
I looked up the hours for the Christmas tree lot and discovered it opened at 10:00 a.m. on Sunday. There it was – our time slot. Arrive at 10:00, 15 minutes to look over the selections and make a choice, whole thing decorated by noon, and we had time to get our other stuff done. My daughter even dialed up an internet Christmas music station for us so we could listen to carols as we hung the ornaments.