Breaking Tradition

I love Christmas. I love Christmas so freaking much. It surprises people because I am loudly atheist and I guess that seems like a big disconnect. I don’t notice because I always forget that Christmas is about Jesus. I get excited about finding memorable gifts and knitting scarves and baking pies. I had to make a rule that I couldn’t start Christmas shopping until after Labor Day (a rule I have frequently broken in the past) but to make up for it I am allowed to MAKE gifts all year round. (Not pies, obviously.)

The sad this is that I love Christmas so much I usually ruin it. I realized some time ago that I have this habit of trying to recreate the perfect Christmas, which doesn’t exist. Or rather, in my mind, is actually a combination of memories from several Christmases from my 43 years with all the bad parts snipped out. Nothing could ever live up to my expectations. My family would come and I would be waiting for the magic to start, but their excitement didn’t match mine. Which made me anxious. They aren’t having fun! I’m doing it wrong! So then I’d open up some wine to try to “fix” it. After an hour or so I’d be drunk and go to bed, and then next morning I would realize I had ruined it yet again.

This year, my 43rd Christmas, was supposed to be one of the *good* Christmases. Those are the ones where my sister and her husband and their two children come out from Seattle and we have a big Christmas with our entire family all together in one house. But this is not going to be one of the *good* Christmases. This is going to be a COVID Christmas (hopefully it will be “The” COVID Christmas), and no one is going to gather, much less travel from Washington. I’m feeling cheated and sad about the whole thing. But maybe it is a good thing? I can’t ruin anyone’s Christmas this year but my own. And Matt’s. Sorry, Matt!

I can’t say I’ve been dreading this weekend. I’ve just been pretending it’s not coming up. And then, when I couldn’t do that anymore, I’ve been pretending it isn’t a big deal. I’ve been feeling this pull to do the complete opposite of ruining Christmas with my insane enthusiasm. I’ve been wanting to ruin it in a new way, by skipping Christmas altogether and stay in bed with a book. Like a readathon in grade school! Those were the only times I felt safe as a bullied kid in public elementary school: double-insulated by hiding inside a book, under a metal legged desk. I grew up in the 80s when they still did they occasional “hide under your desk, it might save you from having your cells liquified by an atomic weapon!” drill. I didn’t worry about that so much. That was just a faint possibility. Other children were my Cold War, and they showed up every goddamned day.

I was thinking about this great episode of This American Life from many years ago, where they tackle the issue of the repetitive side of the holidays, where people do the same twelve things every year because they are traditions and because it brings up those memories of years past. It’s a fraught enterprise, I have decided. It’s comfortable, sure. Like settling in to your own well worn butt grove in your favorite chair. But it is also a high pressure delusion. You HAVE to get it just right, or you BLEW IT! And if you DO get it just right, you will never truly be sure which Christmas you are remembering when looking back on it, because you went to the same performance of The Nutcracker for 35 years in row.

With that in mind, this year, I’m blowing off the traditions and trying to do some new things. We can’t do the traditions, anyway, so why not? Matt and I sat down and planned the Christmas Eve and Christmas morning menus, choosing new recipes we have never made before. We drove to the Salt Flats, west of Salt Lake City, to see “the great conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn, which cannot be repeated for another 60 years, so no traditions there!

The hope is that it will help me to miss everyone less, because I’m not eating our family’s traditional Christmas oyster stew and looking around my table at all the people who aren’t there. Which, frankly, is a bonus because I don’t like oysters. I usually just eat the potatoes and the bacon and fling the little oyster bits into potted plants or dog’s mouths when no one is looking.

Besides going to see “The Christmas Star,” as people are calling it (I suppose because it has a more romantic ring than “The Planetary Alignment Which Happened to Occur on Earth’s Winter Solstice”), I also made my first Yule log. I’ve been doing some research on Pagan traditions and I read that the old custom was to throw a large log on the fire to celebrate the return of the longer days and the sunshine. In the 19th century, it became a cake that looks like a log. I’ve seen pictures before but it always looked too difficult and time consuming. This year, I decided to make one to celebrate solstice, and because what the hell else am I going to do?

It was easier than I thought it would be. There is this great recipe online that has videos showing the rolling part, which was great, because I couldn’t picture it at all. (Don’t skimp on the powdered sugar on that step! It will save you and your dishtowel some stress!) More than that, it was fun! Something completely new. And, if I do say so myself, it was damn yummy.

This is my strategy for the next week. Don’t try to make it perfect. Don’t try to make it terrible in revenge for the fact that it won’t be perfect. Just let it be what it is and find some adventure as a distraction from the fact that I won’t get to see my sisters or hug their kids.

Happy holidays, everyone. I hope they are either perfectly mediocre or memorable in a good way.

R

About Rachel Lewis

I am a writer, ceramic artist, knitter, and new stepparent. As a playwright, I had six short plays produced in showcases and festivals in Manhattan, Salt Lake City, and Austin. My full-length play, Locking Doors, was presented by Wordsmith Theatre Company in The New Lab Theatre (University of Utah) in 2005. I co-wrote a teleplay titled “Thank God I’m Atheist” which won the 2015 “No God But Funny” contest founded by the Center for Inquiry. My short nonfiction essay, “It’s Coming Down,” was published by the online literary magazine Halfway Down the Stairs. I currently work in pharmaceuticals professionally and write recreationally, but dream of making the transition to write professionally and do pharmaceuticals recreationally. I am a Utah native and live in Salt Lake City with my Yorkshire terrier, Wensleydale Doggiepants. I am working on a collection of humorous non-fiction essays and a second full-length play. Follow me at: rachelclewis.com @rachel_lewis_ut (Twitter) @rachel_lewis_ut (Instagram)

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