The International Writers Magazine: Christmas Stories
At a time when most of my neighbors and friends bustle about in the frenzy of mailing Christmas cards, choosing trees, and shopping for gifts, my mind is elsewhere. I must try to pack the perfect suitcase. For the past sixteen years, all of my adult life, I have been traveling during the Christmas holidays.
At first, this was simple enough--a college student's return home to her parents. Now, with French husband and multicultural family in tow, it sometimes takes on epic proportions. We've had to find our own ways of coping with holiday travel.
When I was in college and then graduate school, the decision of what to do for Christmas was always simple – return home to Mom and Dad. Graduating from school dorms to single-girl dump, I didn't believe for one second that these places were home. Home was a place where sheets were ironed and meals were cooked. I never noticed the empty smell of an uninhabited apartment upon my return back from the holidays because it smelled like that all the time.
The confusing years were next, with spousal jockeying for the right to spend the holidays with our families. Often, we did some combination of both, beginning at one location, finishing at the other – a paper, rock, scissors of you-get-Christmas-but-I-get-New-Year's. Babies should have slowed us down, but didn't. My daughter's first transatlantic trip was in my stomach, when I vomited across the ocean, and through several European cities.
Going to the airport for the holidays has become its own kind of homecoming. The weary faces of my fellow travelers, children pulling little suitcases while speaking two, three languages--I know them; they know us. The holiday spirit is often at its best here, when travel is at its worst. Seatmates become friends; you begin to recognize faces when you take the same flights year after year. There's the redhead with the three children. There's that couple with the baby from last year. He's walking now!
“Home for the holidays” really signifies the vast relief of no longer sitting in a cramped seat, with the heads of two children bowing over each leg. Eating in this position an impossibility, we all arrive famished, ready to begin the holiday overindulgence. We glide down the escalator into baggage claim, falling into the fluffy pillow of people who are happy to see us.
Now, though, I have a real home that no longer resembles those empty apartments of my college days. The children's rooms bear their names in cheerful, wooden block letters. A playroom filled with stuffed animals, robots, and train tracks beckons them. My bright red kitchen makes me my favorite kind of coffee in the morning, which I drink from my favorite mug.
To allow us some holiday memories in our own home, we have proclaimed what we call “Fake Christmas.” This serves both the nostalgic purpose of allowing us to spend a holiday moment in our own house and the practical one of exchanging presents before travel, thus avoiding putting them all in a suitcase just to bring them back home again. Fake Christmas has become its own treasured ritual, on a par with Christmas morning itself, since it brings with it a morning spent with family, a pancake breakfast, and of course, presents.
The children are getting bigger, and deep suspicions are starting to set in about Santa. Before, it was easy enough to explain that Santa knew we would be traveling and was willing to stop by a little early...and yet again once we reached our destination. If my seven-year-old chooses to share this information with her classmates, the jig will be up, in a sea of mocking and incredulity. Seven-year-olds are ruthless, and even those who still believe in Santa won't readily accept the plausibility of this.
Once Santa is out, there may no longer be a need for Fake Christmas, too. The excitement of bringing in the morning's gift harvest gone, the children probably won't care when they receive their iPods, name brand clothes, and video games – just that they receive them. I will miss this tradition, a necessary one for a family with more than one place to call home.
We're getting ready. I will pack gifts for family abroad, which, once removed, will leave a space for the gifts we will bring home. The Christmas tree goes up early; we don't have the luxury of caring about that stupid after-Thanksgiving rule, with limited time to enjoy it. Fake Christmas is coming, so Santa will have to tell his elves to finish their toys early for my family. I'm sure he doesn't mind, since it also means he gets to eat cookies in front of the fireplace twice. Maybe it won't last forever, but it's gone beyond fulfilling its need to alleviate packing worries. Fake Christmas, our own Christmas Eve, two weeks early and a little weird, remains our own special tradition - for now.
© Amanda Callendrier December 2010