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You never realize how weird your family is until you’re an adult.
At least, I didn’t.
When I moved out to Oregon from Missouri in the early Nineties for college, I assumed most families who celebrated Christmas had similar traditions to mine.
Here’s how Christmas went down in the Wallace household in the Eighties:
My mom decorated the crap out of the house. My sister and I had our own Christmas trees in our rooms. There were wreath-shaped novelty soaps placed by the sink. (Under no circumstances were you to use those soaps!) The mantel was gussied up with silver and gold spray painted and glittered pinecones. My dad’s recliner space was usurped by the enormous fake tree – always fake except for the year I was sixteen and I guilt tripped Mom into getting a real one. Those were my vegan-Birkenstock-patchouli-no showering days.
Tinsel. Garlands. Styrofoam egg carton ornaments my parents made when they were newlyweds. Bubble lights. Popcorn strings. Construction paper chains.
Lights in the bushes out front. Lights on the sliding glass door to the back porch. Luminaries lining the driveway.
It was awesome. Christmas perfection.
On Christmas Eve, my sister and I would put on our white tights and our nearly matching dresses – often a variation on the theme of what my mom was wearing. Lots of plaid taffeta and velvet and scratchy lace collars. Mom would put our hair in hot rollers and let us wear some of her pearlescent pink lipstick and lavender cream eyeshadow. Dad would wear a nice navy or grey suit and top it off with either his London Fog trench coat or his orange-tan leather jacket that made him look kind of like a pimp, so we never let him wear a hat as well.
We’d pile into the station wagon and slog through the snow to the midnight service at church.
Trinity Lutheran was always decorated beautifully, a lot like our house, but with more poinsettia and less glitter. We’d all take our seats in a pew about halfway up the aisle and we sat: Dad, Stacey, Valerie, Mom. We’d wave to our friends and stage whisper to one another about how sparkly we all looked.
The organ music began up in the balcony, the choir practically blowing the doors off the church with Hark! the Herald Angels Sing and I’d get this rush, be so overwhelmed by the Christmas of it all that I’d want to cry.
That feeling would stay with me throughout the service. More singing, the sermon, the acolytes extinguishing the candles. Joy to the World! while Pastor Gerike walked down the aisle, a smile on his face, his Bible clutched to his chest. We’d file out and meet in the lobby and wait in line to talk to him. Back slapping and handshakes for the men, hugs for the women, boys pulling on their clip-on ties, us girls trying to walk with grace even though the crotches of our tights had stretched out and shimmied their way down to our knees.
Then we were back in the car, back home, putting out cookies and milk and beer for Santa and carrots tied with bows for his reindeer. My sister and I would put on our nearly matching flannel nightgowns – me navy or lavender, my sister red or pink – and we’d get a few hours of sleep before we’d sneak to our parents’ room and climb in bed with them, asking every few minutes if those were in fact reindeer hooves we heard on the roof.
At six a.m., we’d drag our parents from their bed and my sister and I would wait at the top of the stairs while my mom went down to see if Santa had visited. The answer was always, “I think I see a few more presents than were here last night.”
We’d give ourselves rug burn on the backs of our thighs as we slid down the stairs. I’d run to my corner of the family room and my sister would run to hers. Wrapping paper thrown into the air. Pictures taken with Barbies and Walk-mans and telephones shaped like pianos and nearly matching sweaters. Mom got earrings and a silky blouse, Dad got leather gloves and a Bill Cosby sweater.
My sister, on alternating years, got coal in her stocking or a clown figurine. Both made her cry, but she was soothed on that day only by maple candy. We’d tell her she was a good sport.
Mom made biscuits and gravy, scrambled eggs, cinnamon rolls, bacon. We’d have tall glasses of orange juice and eat the gigantic apples we’d received in our stockings, while she cooked.
During breakfast, Mom started making lunch.
Lunch included a birthday cake for Jesus.
Four hours later: Ham, pea salad, ambrosia, scalloped potatoes, noodles, green beans, rolls with butter, dressing, steamed carrots, relish tray, sherbet and Sprite punch.
We were stuffed.
Mom would bring out the birthday cake. It had about a million lit candles on it – because GO BIG or get the heck out of my awesomely dramatic family’s home – and we’d sing.
We’d blow the candles out and clap and say Happy Birthday Jesus to the ceiling. We’d force ourselves to eat a piece of cake. It would’ve been rude not to.
Then we’d retreat back to the family room and my sister and I would lie back under the Christmas tree and look up at the lights. I’d take my glasses off and brag about how much cooler a view I got due to my blurry vision. My sister would tattle on me for bragging.
And Christmas would be over for another year.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, and yes, when I talk about my Christmas memories, people do laugh at me for the Jesus birthday cake, but that’s not the tradition I assumed everyone had.
I assumed that everyone had a house full of Christmas, got to dress up nice, got a church rush, ate too much, received too many gifts. I thought that surely, on Christmas, everyone got to have a perfect day.
When I realized that wasn’t true, I also realized how lucky I was to have my weird family and the childhood that I had.
Merry Christmas! I hope you have the best possible weird and wonderful holiday you can, whether you’re reliving old memories or making new ones.