In the common room they’ve got the biggest tree
And it’s huge and cold and lifeless
Not like it ought to be,
and the lit-up flashing Santa Claus on top
It’s not that same old silver star,
you once made for your own
First Christmas away from home.
– Stan Rogers
This time a year ago, I was rushing downstairs with every knock on the door, hoping to get there before Trish did. At the door, the Kevin and Kell collections I’d ordered for her might be waiting, or the DVD of Oysterband’s 25th Anniversary Concert, or the Northwest Coast masks I’d bought. If one of them was, then I would have to figure a place to stash them until Trish was out and I could hide them more effectively.
This year, I am by myself, reflecting on how many traditions can accrete around a relationship in thirty-two years, and dreading the blankness of a Christmas without them.
The first Christmas we shared, Trish and I had barely been a couple for six weeks. We spent much of it at our separate families, but not before we exchanged gifts; she gave me a ceramic chess set, and I gave her Renaissance’s Live at Carnegie Hall. I still have both, although much of the Renaissance album is a bit lush for my tastes today.
The next year, we were an established couple, and backed each other up on all the obligatory Christmas visits. In fact, between dashing over to West Vancouver on Christmas Day, then to Parksville on Boxing Day, and half a dozen other places as well, we overdid the traveling so much that one of our first traditions was born: Never again. In future years, we confined our dashing about to the parents, and maybe one or two other events that we either couldn’t avoid or wanted to attend.
Other traditions were born that year, too. That was the year Trish started her tradition of giving her craftwork as gifts. Blackwork embroidery, cross-stitch, crochet, beaded ornaments, embroidery – over the years, the diversity was astounding, and all done to her perfectionist standards. One year, she made several hundred angels and bells, and sold them to buy Christmas presents, an effort she never quite equaled again. One year, too, I threatened the efficiency of her assembly line by doing candles, but the results were too mixed for me to do so a second time.
Trish’s crafts brought other rhythms to our Christmas as well. The one where she stayed up until three in the morning on Christmas Eve to finish a piece was one I might have done without. But the one of decorating our tree with her ornaments is one that always gave me a flash of pride, to have something so utterly unique in the living room.
Another tradition revolved around gift-giving. While I was a student and later as a grad student, we had a budget so tight that it always threatened to snap like a rubber band stretched too far, so we never got into the habit of buying large presents for each other. Besides, where was the fun in that? In our second year as a couple, we got into the habit of buying a couple of dozen small gifts for each other. Later, when our income increased had increased, we might include one or two moderately priced items, but, by then, the pattern had been set, and the small gifts continued – so much so that, over the years, Christmas and birthdays were when most of the books, music, and movies came into the household.
One advantage of buying small gifts was the amount of loving conspiracy that they inspired: splitting the alphabet in various gift categories so that we wouldn’t buy duplicates, secret phone conversations, and mysterious deliveries, all accompanied by cryptic and increasingly outrageous hints. We started using recycled gift boxes, wrapped in the most exotic papers we could find, and adding tags with puns and hints that would have made a veteran solver of crossword puzzles weep at their obscurity – tags that only really became meaningful after the gift to which each was attached was opened.
We learned quickly to take only some gifts for each other on Christmas Day, because other people became impatient with our exchange. But that worked out, too, since it meant we had a few presents to open when we awoke, and still more when we got home after visiting my folks on Christmas Day, and Trish’s folks on Boxing Day.
Then there were the stockings. There was always a marzipan pig in mine, and a Birk’s spoon in hers, either from her mother and me. Trish especially had a genius for finding the exotic and improbable at dollar stores, and often her stocking was the repository of the earrings I had found for her. In later years, when we decided the last thing we needed was more knickknacks or novelty items, the stockings were full of gourmet candies and sauces, which we would be happily discovering well into March.
Somewhere around December 28th or so, when the visits had temporarily slackened, came the gloating over the loot – I mean our first real chance to dive into the gifts and thoroughly explore them. Since our tastes overlapped so much, most of the time a gift could be appreciated by both of us, so we felt slothful and luxurious as we lounged around and made happy discoveries.
New Year’s Eve were for board games. Most of the time, there were just the two of us, but for a half dozen years, a couple of nephews were included, who always fought over the rules and pleaded with us for more alcohol than we would let them have. These massive game sessions would last for eight or ten hours, with pauses to refill the punch bowl on the kitchen counter and for me to cook a hearty lasagna of four or five cheeses.
And, finally, when the New Year had begun, and the guests were gone, came the tarot reading. Neither of us believed in such things, except perhaps as a psychological aid, but we both liked the atmosphere. Anyway, if New Years isn’t a time for omens, then when is?
After that, the days would drift back to normal until January 6th. On Twelfth Night, Trish insisted half-seriously, the tree and ornaments must be stowed away for another, or we would risk bad luck. So down they came, each hand-made ornament carefully wrapped away for another year, and I would march about the house all day singing a song from an old Steeleye Span album:
Oh, Christmas is past,
Twelfth night is the last,
And we bid you adieu,
Pray joy to the new.
This year all these things are gone with Trish. My Christmas shopping is much easier, but much less interesting, and my chances to see how gifts are received greatly reduced. I don’t really need the stacks of recyclable gift boxes in the walk-in closet, and I won’t be doing much visiting, since all except one branch of Trish’s family has apparently decided to drop me. I suppose I could start a new tradition and do some extensive volunteering throughout December, but I’m not sure you can call something a tradition if only one person is involved – and, anyway, it wouldn’t be the same.This year, every time I pass a gift that I no longer have reason to buy, I’m in mourning for the traditions that have died along with the person who shared them with me.