Christmas was always one of our family’s favorite times of the year!
Christmas got a whale of a buildup each year, starting with decorating the tree on November 26th. That was Mamie Régine’s birthday, Marie-Hélène’s maman, and decorating the tree on her birthday linked her to our Christmas. We would keep the decorations up until January 14, my mum’s birthday, for the same feeling. It’s such a family time.
We were bringing our grandmothers into the festivities, and our Christmases were very festive, even if they couldn’t be there themselves.
Marie-Hélène always put a lot of effort into decorating the tree, which as a result always looked a wonderful combination of festive and stylish. The “sapins” were best viewed at night, when the lights turned each into a sparkling feast, and the top photo was taken when the automatic flash didn’t work for some reason, giving us a very realistic shot. All our Christmas trees looked a lot like this.
I was mostly in charge of decorating the living areas, stringing garlands and the like, mostly green and covered with little lights around the living room, and mostly red and gold and shiny around the hallway and the kitchen. One of my favorite annual chores!
Some of the windows out on to the driveway would be covered with white portraits, like snow, which Marie-Hélène created each year. Christmas cards which we’d received, principally from England and France (that charming habit died earlier in the US than in Europe) would hang above the fireplace.
I particularly enjoyed decorating outside: the different levels of our decks would be strung with yards and yards of little lights, framing the house in part and visible from the road, and the larger bushes in the back yard too would sparkle with their own myriads of little lights. I had hundreds of feet of outdoor extension cords set up in the yard to be able to switch these lights on before each Christmas.
Marie-Hélène introduced the concept of letters to Santa, which became a serious task for several years. They were a bit difficult to manage, because small children who are encouraged to ask Santa for presents can begin to think that anything asked for will arrive Christmas morning. Which is unlikely! As adults, we knew this, and spent a fair bit of time setting their expectations in light of what we knew, not forgetting the year’s budget.
It was fascinating to watch our younger boys work with the various issues raised by these letters. At the age of ten, Charlie established priorities for the dozen presents he listed, and then tried to express contingency plans for them. Not easy tasks, but very cute! Then seven, Alex was more to the point: “I really, really want them!”
We’d have advent calendars for each of the children, normally in the entryway, with little chocolate treats that they were each supposed to eat on the right days. Never did know whether they actually did! But by Christmas Day, there was definitely nothing left.
Also on the culinary front, I would typically bring home a Christmas pudding with brandy butter from World Market, to universal indifference! Love that Christmas pudding!
Several later years, we added Christmas crackers, a wonderful British tradition that we fueled at first during trips to England, but which eventually came to Costco! The crackers contained a party hat, some sort of motto or joke, and a little present. They let off a big crack when pulled and ripped apart, throwing their contents every which way. You can see the appeal for children already!
We also had a little Christmas electric train set. I will admit that this was one of my favorite parts of the festivities. Unpacking the track and the train and putting it all together around the tree was a reminder for me of days gone by, and I hoped that the little train with its own flashing lights would in its turn give the children their own memories of days gone by. It’s a bit too early to tell: we’ll see.
As ever, we did not necessarily spend Christmas all together. Some years Daphné and Alban would spend the vacation with their father, and some years Nick and Tom would spend it with their mother.
Unlike the summer vacation, which was long enough to split in two halves, with the older children able to spend one half with us and the other with their parent in France, the Christmas vacation was only ever two weeks long. If the two parents live in the same State, or even on the same continent, that too can be split in half. But trying to split two weeks in half with transatlantic flights thrown in for good measure would have been hopeless.
Everyone seemed to agree with that prognosis without difficulty, and the resolution was for each pair of older children to spend alternate Christmases with their parent in France. Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way: there were budgetary constraints and availability limitations in France, but we still did not necessarily spend Christmas all together.
The children who were away from us for Christmas returned to find all of their presents duly waiting for them under the tree: all was well with the world!
The extent to which our Christmases were a success with the children is revealed by the manner of Tom’s departure from our home after he had decided to return to Paris to live with his mother. Overall, his decision was a bummer, but I got it.
So as not to squabble with me, or perhaps to avoid any unpleasantness at all, he decided to leave as soon as he could so without discussing what he was going to do, let alone seeking my permission. That was when he turned 18, instantly becoming an adult. He took a vacation to visit his mother, and never came back!
But here’s the point of this anecdote: his birthday is in October, but he waited until the end of December to take that endless vacation. Why? So that he wouldn’t miss one more Christmas at our house!
Of the sixteen Christmases that we spent as a blended family, only one didn’t really work out. It was our last together, in 2009, but oddly enough the reason that it didn’t work was not the couple’s persistent difficulties. Our little Snip spent the night of Christmas Eve outside, as she often did, only this time we never saw her again. I had bought my most expensive Christmas present ever for Marie-Hélène, a pretty thoughtful one too, and she just looked at it.
I could feel what she was thinking, and would gladly have exchanged that present and every other to see Snip casually strolling back into the house, as was her wont.