With Christmas only days away, I’ve racked my brain to come up with some sage wisdom to share about how to manage the stress of the holidays and realized that I haven’t any. Zip. Even though I might hold the record for having the greatest number of low-key, stress-free holidays of anyone on the planet.
This claim might lead you to suspect that I'm in complete denial. Or that I do, in fact, have some mystical key to inner peace. That I’m holding out on you, lording it over all who are ready to transmogrify into a thick slice of fruitcake three days before banana time rolls around. Who do you know that has stress-free holidays besides hermits and cloistered religious? Or soulless, anti-social ogres who bah humbug everything sacred? Is that how I get away with it, am I a dried husk of bipedal mammal with a slavish troll of a disease stomping around my central nervous system?
Nothing quite that extreme. One reason for my serenity is that I have no children, and as I am now 56, it follows that I have no grandchildren either. And there are only two children among my three siblings, my nieces aged 43 and 23, neither of whom have children and likely will not be having them. Now, I’m not advocating practicing fanatical birth control as a means of reducing holiday stress, far from it. I wouldn’t mind having some little ones around from time to time, I get a kick out of the little nippers. The world is new and exciting for them and they are just so darn adorable when they’re trying to be good so Santa won’t short sheet them on Christmas Eve. Kids are why we want to do it up grand during the Yuletide season.
Another reason for my lack of stress is that I have a terrific family. My mother is one cool customer, a rock, and my two sisters and brother are sane, sensitive, great cooks and organizers who are grown-ups and do not engage in pettiness. Two of them live in other parts of the country, so those who can’t make it for the holiday get on the phone or on Skype to share in the festivities. Though the cast of characters has changed over the years, lately we've kept the crowd small and invite a childless married couple with whom we are close, making sure there is vegetarian fare for them. We potluck it so nobody wigs out. And when I say we, I mean my family and friends. I serve as hostess, keeping coffee cups filled and fetching whatever is needed. We agree not to do gift exchanges—but then some of us always violate the rule and give out gifts anyway, and those of us who have none to share feel okay about that, as do the gift givers. After we eat, we split up to play Scrabble and canasta. It’s laid back, pleasant together time.
There were several years in my young adulthood during my first marriage when Christmas was indeed a stress fest. I had married a man with two small children. I had also acquired four sets of in-laws to please, so Christmas was a frenzied, feverish week of making cookies, loading presents, baked goods and my little family into the car and celebrating Christmas six times over seven days. My favorite moments were shopping for my stepkids’ gifts and wrapping them with my own special flair. Celebrating alone with my then husband and stepchildren was a pleasure. I was in my twenties then, years before MS would make an appearance, so I was physically up to the challenges. I was just plain lucky in that regard. Multiple Sclerosis wouldn’t claim me until I was 41.
My favorite Christmas memories harken back to my childhood during the 1960s, however. Of course my parents carried all the stress, but they never showed it. They always threw a big bash on Christmas Eve replete with an appearance by Santa, who toted a huge sack of presents courtesy of all the parents who surreptitiously passed them to him back in our laundry room where he changed into his Santa costume. He sat in an antique red velvet chair and called out each child’s name in the room (lots of them, too, there were easily 75-100 people packed into our home on these nights), beckoning them to sit on his lap and receive a gift that was magically exactly what s/he had wanted.
What made these parties exceptional was that my father, a hairdresser who owned his own salon and who was also a jazz musician that gigged on the weekends, was a gregarious and progressively-minded man who invited all of his customers and employees to these soirees, as well as our neighbors. We lived in the small, mostly white enclave of Sylvania, Ohio, in a suburban neighborhood where my friends’ stuffy dads all worked for corporations. Our closest family friends were a Pakistani Muslim mixed race family who lived in our neighborhood and a Jewish family, the husband of which always played Santa for our parties. Dad’s African-American employees and jazz musician buddies trekked in from various Toledo neighborhoods; two gay hairdressers who worked for dad, one of whom moonlighted as a female impersonator at the Pink Pussycat in Toledo showed up to our party one year wearing gaucho pants and eyeliner; Greeks, Armenians, and a Ukranian family that lived across the street attended with their large broods, and many more besides. It was like the League of Nations, and I didn’t appreciate the novelty of this rich diversity of friends and acquaintances until some of my friends and neighbors expressed their wonder and confusion. I had taken it for granted. Didn’t everybody’s dad bring home this cross-section of humanity?
These memories are my father’s legacy to us. He taught us to have no fear of people who are different, not through any particular verbal instruction, but by setting an example. I observed him as he talked to people who sported strange clothes and accents, asking them questions and listening to them with sincere, earnest, rapt attention, and he was always ready to laugh heartily at their wit. It made everyone seem the same to me. They were just people.
We lost dad in 2008 after many years of ill health. He spent his last years too weak to move much farther than his recliner, and he found comfort in memories of his own youth in Brooklyn, New York, as part of a very large Italian family, and in listening to his old jazz albums. Every Christmas Eve, I choose to remember him not in his suffering but as a young father in his prime who celebrated life and humanity and who taught us that we are part of a much larger tribe than our insular little village nestled on the Ohio-Michigan border. I came to realize that dad grew up in a multi-ethnic urban community and sought to recreate his childhood in the cornfields of Northwest Ohio, instilling in his children a deep sense of social and religious tolerance and acceptance.
These are the thoughts and feelings I share with my family on Christmas Eve. We’ve made our own Christmas traditions over the years, but we’ve never forgotten the wellspring of our parents’ actions and attitudes, the joie de vivre implicit in their entertaining, their welcoming warmth and humor. We listen to, appreciate, laugh with, and celebrate our guests, whether they are strangers or our closest friends.
Peace on earth, good will towards men. It really existed in the Dolce household. It still does.
How well do people around you understand MS?