the Christmas embarrassment

IMG_1419The tree was decorated in record time, and I’m not sure how. My husband’s mother presented him with an ornament each Christmas, throughout childhood, and continued the tradition with me once I became wife, and only stopped after the birth of our second child, because there was no room for them on the tree.

As the oldest of 8, I’ve longed for ease around the holidays, long before I became a mother, so I might have been pleased, and relieved, and overjoyed, at how effortlessly our tree was adorned this night.

I looked around the livingroom and saw that we were all grown. The boys both taller than me. Both drinking eggnog from grown-up glasses.

I felt a bit sad.

My older son–who had to be dragged through holiday rituals in his teen years–participated without struggle. In fact, he over-participated. Ornaments flew from the table to the tree with a “lets get it done” attitude that left me grasping toward his finger tips.

“Wait,” I said, “Let me see that. It’s one of my favorites.” (He had been reading Turgenev at his desk in his bedroom and wanted back at it.)

I wanted something slower. I turned off the Christmas cd and pushed play on the old VCR. Their eyes turned toward the screen. Mouths slacked.

One by one they sat down, and I set to relocating a few of my favorites to better branches.

By the time the New Yorkers sang Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and Ed Asner took flight over Central Park, the last drops of eggnog were dried to the glasses.

“We used to sing like that when I was a kid,” my husband told the boys. “We’d get together with our neighbors in Ardsley and go door to door.”

Our older son surprised us by saying that he bemoaned the lack of tradition in his own generation, admiring the pace of conversation and connection in Turgenev’s time. “Everything is so fast now,” he said.

“We caroled too,” I added. “People would offer us eggnog or candy canes or even cash.”

A smile crossed my face, and I covered my mouth in embarrassment at a scene I had forgotten.

“What?” my younger son said. “Tell us!”

I was 9 years old. Out caroling in Aurora, Colorado. Me and a friend. Just the two of us, in the neighborhood between our houses, after night fall. We sang our favorites: Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer, Jingle Bells, Deck the Halls, Away in the Manger. We munched on candy canes, and stuffed coins (and even a few dollar bills) into our pockets.

As it approached 8 pm, my friend had to say goodbye, and I felt such disappointment, until I decided that I would continue caroling as I worked my way back to my own neighborhood.

The boys laughed at the thought of this, and I didn’t even have to paint the picture of a pint-sized girl with wispy blonde hair and a big smile and an even bigger mind. “There was a trick-or-treating feeling to the night,” I said.  “I couldn’t stop.”

I still remember the house. I rang the bell. The door opened. I slipped into a soulful rendition of Silent Night, there under a dark sky, before Christmas…

“It’s really late. Shouldn’t you be home?”

There, in front of me, under a front stoop light, stood a balding man, interrupting my serenade.

I blushed, embarrassed, and turned to run home, ashamed.

“I’ve never heard that kind of story from your childhood before,” my oldest said. “It’s fun. Like a real childhood.”

“Tell us more,” said my youngest.

We talked like this for some time, beside the perfect glow of the tree, and then finished the evening with a nightly reading from National Wildlife’s, December Treasury–a tradition that began before the boys were born, when my husband and I still lived in New Jersey and couldn’t imagine moving to Vermont and building our own home and finding a Christmas tree on our own land.

Our older son rolled his eyes, “Are we going to do this every night?”

We had always intended to read from the December Treasury every night, but even before the kids, we found ourselves skipping days, or parts, or forgetting about the book altogether until after Christmas, and then, what was the point.

Our oldest was currently reading his way through the classics, and wasn’t interested in these seasonal read-alouds; particularly because following dreams took sharp focus, and the comforts of home got in the way, especially at Christmastime, and especially when you were about to book your ticket to fly to Europe in the New Year, and take up residence in Spain.

It was already December 15th, and we hadn’t skipped a single night or a single reading. Uncharacteristically, my husband led the way, insisting on the nightly ritual, and even offering to read.

This night, he stumbled with the opening lines, so much so that I moaned for him to relinquish the book to our younger son, who stumbled in all the same places, leading my husband to claim, triumphantly:  “This guy can’t write.”

In the course of the winter I threw out half a bushel of ears of sweet corn, which had not got ripe, on to the snow-crust by my door, and was amused by watching the motions of the various animals which were baited by it. In the twilight and the night the rabbits came regularly and made a hearty meal.

Sensing a challenge, my older son and I both read, and did so seamlessly, one after the other, so that the evening’s selection, or at least its first paragraph, was read not only once, but several times before we opened December 15th on the advent calendar and shared the small square of dark chocolate among us.

An argument ensued over the value of a year in the woods, beside a pond, and whether it mattered if it was close to town or if was softened by the delivery of cookies by Mrs. Thoreau. My husband thought it was. My oldest insisted it wasn’t. My youngest had already opened his iPhone and was smiling at the screen.

The next morning, I opened my computer and saw this post, understanding that I was ahead of my time and shouldn’t have been embarrassed at all.


Carols are sung 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, by college students at the University of Illinois, during finals week. The program is in its 56th year of operation with callers from all over the world including Romania, Netherlands, Mexico, China, Ethiopia and the Czech Republic. Student volunteers sing to people of all ages from nursing homes, daycares, elementary and middle school classrooms, work offices and hospital rooms until their semester ends on December 16th.


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