the ghosts of christmas past

Every holiday at my parents' house takes for-ev-er. My siblings and I would try to make plans so that we could work around all of our kids' naptimes and bedtimes. We considered the likelihood of kids falling asleep in the car on the way there and/or the way back. We thought about their happy and grumpy times of day. We figured out what time of day worked best for all of us and advocated for having family gatherings during that time. In short, we did our best as parents to set ourselves and our kids up for the smoothest, best-mood holiday gathering possible, and we did our best as siblings to accomodate each other. And really, it would have been fine, if it had been up to us. Problem is, my mom wants to host everything. And she is completely incapable of serving a meal less than two hours after the planned time. Inevitably, we ended up with hungry, tired, cranky kids and way-too-late bedtimes. And, of course, my mother commenting on the kids' bad behavior, which wasn't bad behavior at all, but hungry, tired, cranky behavior. I remember her thinking very poorly of older relatives who acted the way she does and who had no sympathy for the families with young kids. And now here she is, choosing to sneer at our parenting rather than choosing to help us plan a gathering that is actually fun for the people involved. 

The last several times I spent Christmas with my extended family, the gift exchange was hard. Since my brothers have gotten married, my mother, despite badmouthing the women behind their backs, gives them beautiful presents. The strange thing is that the presents don't suit the recipients...and they do suit me. They are, in fact, pretty much exactly the sorts of things somebody who knows me and loves me might give to me at Christmas. I ached when one SIL unwrapped a pair of beautiful, beautiful dresses from a label I had coveted in my early teens. The symbolism of giving a dress like that to me would have been wonderful. Instead, they were given to SIL, who doesn't wear dresses, and even if she did, she wouldn't wear these dresses. They were my style, not hers. She also received jewelry that was so totally *me*.  The same SIL once received gift certificates for pampering, and she hates that kind of spa service. I love it. Another SIL received home decor items that looked like they would fit perfectly in my home, not hers. Both SILs received mother-in-law/daugher-in-law weekends in gorgeous Bed & Breakfast inns with tours of museums. I have never once had a mother/daughter weekend. Not once. (At some point I let her know that it would be meaningful to me, and she begrudgingly promised one to me, then later asked me to plan it myself and insisted that I choose a specific weekend even though I was in my third trimester, hugely pregnant and uncomfortable, and not really disposed to travel at that time. The weekend never happened.) Meanwhile, my husband and I would receive strange, useless gifts, the kinds of things you give to somebody whom you don't know at all but feel obligated to buy for.  Gifts for my kids are generally completely out of sync with their age and interests, and more often than not, they break immediately, at which point she might mention replacing them, but never does.

Then there is the matter of my son's birthday. Kiddo had the good fortune to be born on Christmas Day. This means that on the 25th we have not one, but two occasions to celebrate. We have found ways that work for us, generally switching over to "birthday mode" in the second half of the day. Dinner is his choice rather than the turkey dinner I grew up with. We have birthday cake for dessert rather than other Christmassy desserts. Thanksgiving is when we have turkey and pumpkin pie; Christmas is when we have his birthday dinner...except when we go to my parents' house. Because apparently my parents and siblings are more attached to their traditional Christmas meal than to their grandson/nephew. Even though growing up, the birthday kid always got to choose dinner, when it interferes with the turkey, we can't have that! And can we all share cake? No! I would bring a cake, but they would still prepare the usual pies. Nobody except my husband and I would share cake with my son. My siblings and parents didn't even sit down at the table while singing their unenthusiastic birthday song; they were too busy trying to get their pie. The whole day would be CHRISTMAS!!!!! and no thought about the birthday kid. This is why so many people think Christmas birthdays suck. They don't have to suck if everybody else gets over themselves and gives some attention to the birthday boy. (I'm not asking for a parade, just geez, actually sit down and sing happy birthday and watch him blow out his candles and share some cake together. Be his tribe for a second, will ya?) This whole dinnertime dismissal of the birthday would also be hours later than planned, as indicated in the first holiday memory above. The whole thing felt awful. It felt like my son's birthday was an inconvenience to everybody, like oh, geez, yeah, we hafta squeeze in the birthday song somewhere here, ugh. I don't expect anybody to love my son like I do, but I do expect people to be gracious hosts, grandparents, aunts and uncles. I do expect that a child celebrating his birthday should get to pick the meal, eat it before his bedtime, and have everybody make him the center of attention for just fifteen minutes. I tried discussing my concerns with my siblings and parents, and they acted like I wanted excessive attention. They said they would *try* to compromise. It didn't happen. He was four. After that, I decided that if honoring his birth is such an inconvenience to them, we wouldn't subject them to it. We haven't been back for Christmas since.

Our first Christmas completely on our own was WONDERFUL. No agenda but ours. Nowhere to rush to, no dinner too late for the kids, and the birthday boy would be celebrated and appreciated just as he deserves.  My in-laws usually come to see us, or we might visit them on the other side of town. They make plans with us, asking about what works best for the kids, and they honor those plans. They are genuinely excited about my son's birthday. We enjoy each other's company. Isn't that how Christmas is meant to be? 


  1. I absolutely LOVE how you handle the birthday/Christmas overlap, and I'm sure kiddo will remember that always! I hope you and your family have one of the best holidays ever! -S

  2. Hoo boy - not making time for a 4-year-old's b-day celebration is pretty harsh. It's just not that hard. Normal grandparents usually love every opportunity to make a fuss over their grandchildren. And like you say, once he's in bed everyone can go back to their Christmas activities.

    That part about wanting "excessive attention" really struck a chord with me. So often with my NFOO, when I have expressed a need for more of something, they immediately react as if I want the most extreme version of that thing. E.g. I really could have used some financial assistance when I was at university, but if I said anything about it, they'd act like I expected them to go bankrupt so I could live an extravagant lifestyle.

    The lesson, of course, is that you should not ask for ANYTHING.

    Oh and gifts - yeah, I had that too. Weird crappy gifts for me, great stuff for everyone else.