Everything about Christmas feels upended this year. Everything old seems new.
Like Scrooge without the attitude, I'm rattling around in memories, clinging to fragments of Christmas Past. It's curious how styles of family celebrations come in shifting waves.
When we still gathered at my parents' home, holidays were an extravaganza. My mother was a fabulous cook and a gifted entertainer. Every table was photoworthy, from the pristine antique linens salvaged from estate sales to the transparent Limoges china, artfully mismatched and acquired piece by piece over the years from a statewide circuit of antique stores.
Delicate stemmed goblets sparkled in the soft light of slim tapers lit just before dinner. Children had special place settings, complete with a tea towel under their plates to protect the fancy linens.
While each family brought a homemade dish to contribute to the meal, they often seemed like bit players in my mother's culinary drama. Oh, the golden basted turkey making its grand entrance to the table! Oh, the gravy and dressing we fought over.
The gifts under the tree were an extension of my mother's artistic flair. Often chosen months ahead, they were wrapped so beautifully that many of us still recycle her package trimmings today. One year she made her own gift wrap by cutting fresh pears, apples and pine cones in half vertically, then dipping them in gold paint to stencil on brown butcher paper.
For years, against protests of "Let's open presents," she staged a mini-production of the Nativity scene with each grandchild in a homemade costume visiting the babe in the manger.
My firstborn child, now 23, was babe No. 1. Unlike the babe of Bethlehem, he squirmed and squawked uncooperatively for the scene's duration. The next year he had blessedly outgrown the cradle and was replaced by a better behaved swaddled plastic doll, which maintained the starring role until my daughter was born.
A quiet man, my father often said he took orders well. Dad was the willing foot soldier in these holiday orchestrations. He hauled, cleaned, stacked or scoured anything my mother pointed to.
For years, these rituals defined what it meant to gather as a family in celebration. I still cherish all that my mother (and by proxy, my father) lavished on us with her considerable artistic talents. I am deeply grateful, too, for all that I learned from her, a self-taught hostess of great style who understood that, for all the elegance and glamour she laid forth on her banquette, true hospitality sprang from the warm welcome each of us felt at her table.
As the years went by and our own families evolved, we also learned that those carefully woven moments were often threaded with anxiety and exhaustion. As much as she reveled in her domestic gifts, my mom collapsed like an over-baked souffle after each major holiday. Perfection does have its price.
We laugh about it over the apple pie now, but my parents' annual skirmishes over the Christmas tree were legendary. One year my mild mannered father got so aggravated by my mother's insistence on a perfectly straight evergreen that he nailed the tree holder to the living room floor.
Now that my father and mother have passed on, the frayed edges of those epic holidays blur and fade. Call it the foggy lens of the heart's longing. We've suffered other major losses, too, including both of my sisters' husbands. Framed by the reality of their absence at the table, I mainly recall the golden moments in our family tapestry.
So what shall we weave this Christmas Present?
We still love to eat and cook. Although we've made some menu changes to accommodate aging waistlines and creeping cholesterol levels, the hallmarks of Christmas Past live on: the secret recipe pigs in the blanket, the requisite corn casserole, perfect pies, sweet potatoes and showstopping gravy. My brother still insists on "testing" the ham for quality. But now more than ever, there is a sense of reveling in each other's company just the way we are and without the angst of over-preparation.
Fresh green beans served from the pan on the kitchen counter still taste amazing. Pretty paper napkins mean no fussing with stain sticks. We can (and here I contain a small gasp of betrayal) even buy bags of ugly premade bows to plaster on our packages.
Maybe that's the point of holiday gatherings, after all. To look back at the burnt casseroles, the crooked trees, the cross words, the broken ornaments, the harried hostesses and hold them in the same wide-open embrace as the perfectly timed turkey, the gilded tables bathed in soft light and the presents wrapped in finery.
I might drive to the next town to find the right ingredient for some tempting new recipe. I might wander the woods for pine cones and branches and fashion them into an artful centerpiece. I am my mother's daughter, after all. But in the end, we are gathering to feast on the banquet of our family connectedness. When my extended family comes together, we are celebrating our commitment to survive and thrive over decades of joys and sorrows as well as the ordinary bumps and bruises of life.
In the best of all the traditions my parents gave us, we bow our heads together, give thanks and fill ourselves with everything good we bring to the table.