Part Two – The Reality
The choir started singing all those beautiful carols we loved. That was the best part of it and I didn’t want her to miss any of it. I’d go get her, I told my grandmother. I was handed my coat and scarf and in a low voice I was warned there would be trouble if I caught a cold, thus ruining everybody’s holidays. I snuck out as discretely as possible, but disgruntled looks from some of the older ladies could not be avoided.
There she was, on the bench in front of the church, just where I expected to find her, smoking a cigarette. Her face was cold, sad and pale, and her fingers trembled slightly as they moved the cigarette back and forth. We could hear the choir from the bench outside the church and that’s where we stayed and listened to the carols that year. Pieces were falling into place – even if I was still very young, even if I couldn’t quite explain it, I was starting to understand why my mother didn’t want to be there in the first place and why my grandfather kept his distance, refusing to take part in that charade every Christmas.
I was the cute grandchild and my mother was the beautiful, independent, accomplished daughter. Our sole purpose on this world was to make my grandmother proud, I was starting to understand back then. What better time of year than Christmas for the entire community to envy her for her success as a mother and grandmother? What better time of year for the entire community to console her for the shame her ungrateful daughter put her through, refusing to get married? What better time of year to throw her to the gossip hungry wolves, thus punishing her for refusing to present her with a doctor or lawyer son-in-law she could brag about to all her friends?
We listened to the carols from outside, so the cold winter wind could protect us from the cold, vicious, judgemental ‘Christmas spirit’ inside the church. It had gotten particularly festive that year, when my grandmother brought the priest over, so he could better threaten my mother with eternal damnation for not being married… Words no man should ever address a woman, especially in the presence of her child, were uttered. Sharp, bitter, cynical, yet polite comebacks eventually left him speechless and with a proud demeanour my mother said goodbye, turned away and left, still holding my hand as I was struggling to keep up with her fast pace. She knew him as a child, I later found out; they used to play together and be friends; they were the same age, they were still so young, both of them under thirty, yet it all seemed so old and ugly…
Christmas is a time of giving, my grandmother taught me. Christmas is a time of giving, because that’s the only way to prove to those around that you have plenty to spare, maybe even more than them, therefore you are better. There was great bliss in discovering other ladies’ Christmas feast was by far not as rich or as well prepared as hers. It was her personal victory if another woman’s household wasn’t immaculate as hers; she really didn’t pay any attention to the fact that many of those women – her relatives included – also had fulltime jobs to worry about.
Christmas is also a time when you need to know how to receive, my grandmother taught me. It took a while for me to understand that from the many presents there were to be found under the tree on Christmas morning, none was actually from her. She was to receive presents from her family, not to offer them; and they had to be nice, expensive ones, the kind that would trigger her friends’ and acquaintances’ envy. ‘Why… you shouldn’t have…’ was the usual response… but god forbid you hadn’t done it. You were going to be in trouble for it until the following Christmas, when out of the goodness of her heart she would give you a chance to make amends for it. Proper etiquette had to be observed – no matter how nice the gift offered to her might have been, it would lose all its value had you offered something more valuable to someone else. Thus I learned about another Christmas essential – gratitude…
Christmas was about the tree as well – after all, it was the first relevant thing our guests would see, so it had to be nicer than the one any of them might have had at home. She would dramatically collapse on a chair next to it, sipping some wine from one of her crystal glasses, complaining about how exhausting it had all been for her. All the preparations were meant to make her family happy, but did she ever get anything in return? Did anybody ever show her any gratitude? Of course not… No matter who the listeners were, they were always quick to console the poor, unappreciated lady, and to praise her splendidly decorated home and her extremely delicious cooking.
From one Christmas to another, the mirage of that ideal family was more and more difficult to maintain. My mother started finding more and more reasons not to visit over the holidays. My grandfather finally retired. Times were changing rapidly and all of the sudden, she had to live with the idea that her social status would never be what it had been. There was no need to pretend to care about the less fortunate anymore. There was no need to have a wonderful Christmas tree, since there were no relevant guests to envy it anymore. There would still be baking for several days before Christmas, because much as she liked to pretend she was sacrificing herself for all of us, baking was something she actually enjoyed doing, just as she enjoyed the taste of those delicious treats.
Most of her Christmas traditions were still observed, especially when it came to giving and receiving gifts, but the situation became increasingly ridiculous as time went by. While somehow managing to maintain her aura of innocence and goodness to the outside world, the old lady was not able to forever frighten her own family into submission. One by one, most of us managed to break free and live our own lives…
I was presented with so many facets of Christmas over the years, both within and outside my family… so I could only do one thing, since I wasn’t going to deny the holiday and its positive symbolism: I had to make Christmas my own. I had to chisel my own traditions, if I was going to survive it; that’s what I learnt and struggled to accept early on.