In my family, there is myself, my husband, and my parents-in-law.
(Due to a number of cultural and interpersonal factors I am estranged from my biological family)
My Mother-in-Law is from Okinawa, my Father-in-Law is an atheist Englishman. My husband is a mix of the two, while I am a Protestant who was raised with staunch Catholic traditions. As a result my new family has a distinct cultural ‘flavour’ that permeates every interaction; from Birthdays to Mother’s Day and Father’s day, with December being no different.
I have no particular attachments to the various fundamentalist Christian traditions of my childhood. Traditions, such as celebrating Easter with 6 masses in a row (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday) and multiple religious liturgies during the Christmas season. Spending large chunks of my childhood sitting on the wooden pews of my family’s church stirs no love from me and, as I’ve explained to my new family, was one of the motivations for my conversion to a less involved faith.
I’m happy to tone things down for simplicity’s sake, as my new family simply does not understand many of my biological family’s behaviour. “Why do they go to Mass so often?” I recall my in-laws asking a few years ago, in response to my description of the week-long mass schedule my family participated in, “Didn’t God hear you on Monday? Why do you need to pray again on Wednesday? That sounds awfully annoying.”
From my mother-in-law’s Shinto perspective, I completely understand. Annoying the various deities would result in many unfortunate side effects, hence the confusion over the relative persistence of Christians. Despite my new family’s non-Christian sentiments, the idea of Christmas is still an attractive one. My in-laws profess that it ‘looks fun!’ and ‘we should do something like that’.
So, what does a non-Christian Christmas look like? Well, from my perspective – pleasantly different. There is a distinct sensation that it would be far more entertaining in the presence of children (as the excitement of gifts is lost on adults with established homes and not much to desire thereafter), yet the merriment is still there. My father-in-law’s face lights up at the prospect of his son spending a few hours with him, and my mother-in-law seems to excitedly anticipate my reaction to the gifts she’s found for me. How well has she anticipated my hobbies and interests? Our long and frequent conversations have given each other a window into our personalities and shared interests, and Christmas seems a perfect time to display how well we’ve listened. Since the relationship between myself and my family is still quite new, there is plenty to discover and talk about.
Unbeknown to my in-laws is my long-trained ability to react well to gifts regardless of their content – a skill developed over many Christmases past. “Oh!” I say with interest as I unwrap the item, “How thoughtful! Thank you so much!”. My in-laws are pleased that they’ve managed to find ‘just what I needed’, and I continue with my day content that I’ve brought some happiness to my family.
For you see, within the unique cultural mix that my family has, their approach to traditionally Western celebrations is both confused and awkwardly enthusiastic. It’s a mishmash of English, Australian, Irish, and Japanese activities that is vaguely ‘Christmas’ themed. None of the activities we undertake are a ‘tradition’ in any sense, and very few of these activities hold any particular meaning to anyone.
So if this is the case, why bother?
My partner pointed it out after our first Christmas as a married couple. The family celebrates ‘Christmas’ because they understand the complex situation I am in (familial estrangement), and don’t want me to feel isolated during a traditional time of celebration in my culture. They do their best to help me to feel included, even if they’ve never had a ‘tradition’ in which to include me. So, they created one.
That day, like many others in my married life, I cried from happiness. More important than any gift I received, or any decorations around the house, was the love and thoughtfulness of my family. When I make a display of amazement and joy at a gift I’ve received it’s rarely in response to the gift itself. Rather, I’m complimenting the effort that my Okinawan family member put into selecting and wrapping an item in adherence to a cultural practice they’re not familiar with. In all likelihood, they probably googled ‘what is Christmas?’ and ‘how to celebrate Christmas’ before setting out to replicate what they found. They anxiously hover around, unsure if they ‘got it right’, because they don’t want to disappoint me. They did it all – hosting, decorating and gifting – so that one family member wouldn’t be lonely.
And that, dear readers, is what fills my heart with joy every December. The pure selflessness that comes from my family in our display of love for one another. The honesty with which we pursue our holidays. We don’t do these things because we feel obliged to adhere to tradition, but because we genuinely want to make everyone happy.
Disembodied voice here; But what about You? You’re not Okinawan, or Atheist.
To answer my own convenient prompt device; my personal ‘traditions’ are also new, and also seek to fulfil a pure desire for happiness with an undercurrent of Christian influences. I have been purposely going about December with the intent to ‘create’ traditions before introducing children to them. As such, every year I make small adjustments. What worked well last year, what I’d like to add this year, until I get the balance just right.
Stepping down from the extravagance of Catholicism was a huge cultural shift and has taken some adjustment to ‘get it right’, personally. Questions like How Much Mass Is Too Much Mass? and What Message Are We Sending By Having Crucifixes Everywhere? needed to be answered. Once I got a handle on those issues I could move on to the more cosmetic parts of my faith.
Since I moved out of home I have reflected on what traditions are meaningful to me, and why. I researched how different cultures approach December (from Sweden, to Germany, and Italy) and took note of those which coincided with my own beliefs. Then, I set about practising those beliefs until it formed an annual ritual. I also involved my husband in these rituals and new traditions, so that he has a sense of belonging to the annual activity as well. Our family tradition now incorporates the efforts of my in-laws – efforts which, my husband affirms, never occurred before I joined the family – to create a cohesive familial event. So, without further ado, here is what my family Christmas looks like!
-The Kendrick Christmas-
December 1 – Assemble our table-top tree (30cm) with its tiny baubles. Since we have an apartment, it’s all we have the space for. We usually do this together for reasons I’m not sure; fetching the tree from its storage space takes longer than the decoration itself.
A few years back I purchased an adorable ornament designed for a full-sized tree; it’s a labrador, tangled in Christmas lights. It reminded me of my beloved childhood dog, Sebby, and all the silly situations he used to get himself into. Due to the scale of the tree and the ornament, the ‘Christmas Lab’ stands at the base of the tree as if to announce ‘look! I helped with the decorating!’, and also keeps watch over any presents we accumulate before Christmas Eve.
During the Month – I set about adding other little symbols around our flat to indicate the season. Fairy lights around the living room, a wreath over our front door, and a set of golden candles on the dining table. It’s simple, but it’s Home.
I use the candles as ‘advent candles’, burning them a little every day of the month until the end of the year. This tradition was happily adopted from Europe to have a year’s-end countdown, as I found a pack of long candlesticks that were cinnamon-scented. Not only do they serve a functional purpose, they also help to set the festive atmosphere.
A routine of making seasonal treats also exists on my to-do list. Family favourites are Rum-balls, Glogg, and Gingerbread. Now that I’ve got the hang of my apartment’s oven, this year I’ll be expanding my repertoire to sour cherry tart and fruit mince pies. I find that the act of baking every year allows me to practice useful sweet-making skills that don’t get used otherwise, and gives me something tangible to do to mark the season.
I send out Christmas cards to our small circle of family and friends. Each handwritten with tidings for the new year, and fond memories of the year passed, I send them out in the first week of December. Last year I included a photo of each recipient from my wedding day; this year will be an image from a couples’ photo shoot that my husband and I
Finally, in the lead up to Christmas Eve, I assemble some gifts to open on the day depending on what my family has requested and who we’re spending the day with. As per my husband’s specific request of ‘no surprises’, he has begun a tradition of receiving new socks and undies every December 25th. He’s happy to receive them, so that he can dispose of threadbare underpants in favour of something more comfortable, and I can include him in gift-giving without any unnecessary anxiety.
Also, due to my partner never celebrating Christmas before my arrival (and a bad habit of leaving things to the last minute, never wrapping gifts, etc) I go shopping for my own gift, wrap my own gift, and thank my husband when he hands it to me. My husband and I prefer it this way, as
a) my husband is glad that ‘it’s always the right thing to give!’,
b) my husband never has to navigate the stresses of December retail, and
c) I don’t have to use my polite gift-poker face. I am always genuinely happy to receive what my husband gives me on Christmas day because it is exactly what I hoped for. A diary for the new year, a new mug for my tea, or some other item of convenience that is otherwise too expensive to justify purchasing at any other time of year, the gift is usually very practical and well-used. The gift also very often serves the purpose of bringing delight to my husband when he sees me using it. That way, he can point to the item and say, ‘I bought you that for Christmas! I’m glad to see you using it!’. I’m happy to give my husband the credit for the item in this case, as 9 times out of 10 the item was purchased with his credit card.
The gift-giving setup that my partner and I have developed works due to our unique dynamic. My partner is happy to facilitate the things I want, and is even happier to do so if it requires very little extra effort on his part. Considering the labours of his career and how much he obliges when I ask him to accompany me to things he dislikes (such as Farmer’s Markets, Cafes and other White People Nonsense), I give him a pass when it comes to Not Having To Arrange Gifts For People.
Christmas Day – This varies depending on whether my partner is rostered to work that day. If he does go to work, we;
1 – Have a small breakfast together (Usually consisting of a plate of pudding and custard, ham, cheese, a fried egg, glogg or eggnog – non alcoholic versions)
2 – Open our gifts to each other. Since it’s only ever one or two items this only takes three minutes, and usually follows the pattern of ‘wow! socks! thanks honey’ and ‘oh, just what I needed – a new diary for next year! Thanks sweetie’. This always gets us laughing because of how predictable it’s become, and that’s just the way we like it.
3 – Partner goes to work, I send him off with a box of rumballs to share with his coworkers, and I set about tidying up the wrapping paper and dishes.
I usually spend the rest of that day filling out my diary-gift with things for the upcoming year, and browsing the internet with carols in the background.
If my partner does not go to work;
1 – We don’t have breakfast, because my in-laws will be hosting a large lunch. My mother-in-law loves to cook so it’s usually a 5-course Japanese spread of sushi, gyoza, miso soup, katsu curry, and some traditional desserts.
2 – Gift giving
3 – Watch the Dr Who Christmas special, and whatever else is seasonally available.
4 – Attend my in-laws’ house with a bottle of Glogg to share, and some small gifts for my in-laws. They usually don’t want gifts so I’ve started the habit of bringing food like a pie.
5 – After about 3-4 hours of family time my partner and I head home, thoroughly exhausted. We’ll usually go and have a nap, drowsy from all the food.
6 – We’ll go for a short stroll around the neighbourhood to look at all the fairy lights after dark, and prepare to resume our normal lives the next day.
Because we’re currently a childless couple, our New Years’ Celebration is the ‘large celebration’ of the year. On January 1st, I take down all the decorations and subject the whole apartment to a ‘deep clean’. For me that activity is enough motivation to prevent me from drinking too much, as scrubbing the kitchen is difficult with a hangover!
What do you do around December, if anything? How does your culture impact your activities? I’d love to know! Post a comment and maybe I’ll do another post about this for next year.
Until then, many happy returns for the close of this year, and for the beginning of 2018!
– Mrs Kendrick