I don't have a favorite Christmas from my childhood—the sort of holiday memory that lends itself to nostalgic columnizing. No one holiday stands out in my recollections, because, except for the varying parade of toys under the tree on Christmas morning, they were all predictably, wonderfully the same.
That was part of the appeal of Christmas in our family—the annual opportunity to enact our little rituals. It's not that my parents were traditionalists or that our lives on the snowy blank slate of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, were deeply rooted in some ethnic heritage going back to the old country. Rather, by the time I came along, rather late in my parents' lives and with no siblings to further disrupt things, they had settled into a comfortable routine that suited them fine, thanks. They fitted me, their indulged only child, into the otherwise predictable pattern of their lives, and together we did things just so. My wife has never forgotten the gently disapproving admonition of her mother-in-law, my mom, in response to some suggested departure from the Fryxell order of things: "We don't do that."
At other times of the year, this innate stick-in-the-mudness could be irritating, especially as I grew older and wanted to stretch my teenage wings. Stay out past midnight with a group of equally sedate and well-behaved teens? Drive by myself 60 miles (on the interstate, which cuts across South Dakota straight as a laser—I'd barely have to steer) to hear a favorite author talk? Venture to the state capitol in Pierre (pronounced "peer"—it's a South Dakota thing) to lobby for some cause that seemed terribly important in high school but which I can no longer recall? "We don't do that." (Such were the bland manifestations of my teenage rebellion. My peers were smoking pot and getting girls pregnant. I wanted to visit the state legislature. Rebel with a cause, that was me.)
Come the holidays, however, I loved the sameness, the little family rituals as predictable as a white Christmas in South Dakota. Though churchgoing, we were as guarded in our religiosity as in all other things, so Christmas was a largely secular event in our household. (Midnight church services on Christmas Eve would have been inconvenient, for example, for a family that liked to get to bed early.) Transcendence and magic had to enter in small, homely doses—the reindeer decorations my aunt had made, coming out of their assigned boxes, or the white plastic holly with red lights for berries being coiled once again atop the television set. (Always atop the TV. We were never tempted to go wild some year and drape the artificial holly over the living-room coffee table instead.)
To those of you whose childhood holidays were more spontaneous, this may sound like I'm complaining. But I loved it. I looked forward to every detail, every year.
As I got older, indeed, I gradually became the chief Christmas decorator, the guardian of the Fryxell holiday traditions. Yet I didn't seize this opportunity to innovate, to string all-red lights on the metal railing by the front door for once, or to put the little fabric tree (another crafty creation from my aunt) on the table to the left of the sofa instead of the right. No, I further codified—ossified, even—the family rituals. A little holiday dictator, I decreed when the eggnog would be poured, the ice-cream Santas served, the tree lights plugged in, just so.
I suppose that if one of my parents had shown the temerity to suggest, say, that maybe just this one year we should have pie instead of ice cream treats shaped like Santa's head for dessert on Christmas Eve (before, not after, opening the first round of presents!), I would have melted them with a glare: "We don't do that."
So I looked forward for weeks to the trip to the Christmas-tree lot that my mom and I would make (at least as I grew older, my dad never went along on this outing) to select the ideal specimen. We were not, please note, one of those families that put up an artificial tree. (Today, as we unbox one or more of the artificial trees we've collected over various Christmases and various moves, I can't entirely suppress a well-learned shudder.)
I even came to anticipate—if not exactly happily—the annual battle between my father and the Christmas tree once we got it home. My grandfather had been, among other trades, a carpenter, but his college-professor son had eschewed any familiarity with tools. My father's small assortment of hammers, saws and such mostly gathered dust and rust on the ironically named "workbench" in the garage. But at Christmas the tools came out, to saw a slice off the bottom of the tree to encourage it to suck in water (a dry Christmas tree, spilling needles everywhere, was not part of the Fryxell holiday tradition). Then, assuming my dad accomplished that chore without necessitating a tourniquet or a run to the hospital, came the challenge of cramming the remaining trunk into the tree stand.
Now, what my mother called "foul language" was not common in our house, but to this day I associate Christmas with my dad cursing that damn tree stand.
As I've gotten married and we've raised an only child of our own, I like to think I've grown more flexible in my celebration of Christmas. Our tree now comes out of a box instead of from a snowy lot, and I'm wise enough to let my wife handle any work that requires tools, to minimize the festive cursing. When ice-cream Santas became hard to find in the grocery freezer, we adapted. None of my aunt's crafty creations has passed down to this generation of Fryxells, and yet somehow Christmas has continued. Heaven only knows what became of those holly lights.
As couples do, we've had to blend my family traditions with those my wife grew up with. Many's the holiday when I've had to bite my tongue as the words form: "We don't do that." Yes, of course we do, honey. I draw the line at white artificial trees, however.
Moving from house to house and city to city over the years has probably helped. It's hard to be too steadfast about the placement of the holiday lights when you're stringing them outside a different house from last year. (Though now that we've settled down in New Mexico, look out.)
Still, it's the new traditions we've made over the years that I love best about Christmas, and that have been the hardest thing about our daughter growing up. Santa hasn't left footprints of "magic snow" (magic because, strikingly resembling baking soda, it never melts!) in our house for some years now. It seems silly to insist on reading "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" and "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus" before bedtime on Christmas Eve to a girl who's now in graduate school, though I persisted well into her teens. But, you never know, this year nostalgia just might win out.
Someday, when our daughter has a family of her own and we're the visitors at Christmas, I'm sure she'll have developed her own holiday traditions. (Remind me to include a question about white artificial trees, though, in vetting her boyfriends.) She'll do things her way, and we—or at least I—will seem like the stick-in-the-muds, even as we labor not to be: "Spaghetti for Christmas dinner, honey? How—er—interesting."
That's all right. If Christmas retains any magic in this unmagical era, it's the glimmer of traditions stretching into the past like a string of lights. Some part of our daughter's family traditions will reflect our own, when she was growing up, and—more remotely—the ironclad holiday habits of my childhood as well.
And who knows? Maybe she'll live someplace where the grocery stores carry ice-cream treats shaped like Santa's head.
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure, and wishes you all