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I Don't Know How to Do Christmas

Girl waiting for Christmas day
Photograph by Getty Images/Flickr RF

“How does your mother do Christmas?” my mother-in-law asked, the first time I visited her house during the holidays.

Do Christmas?

Um … we did the usual things: decorated a pine tree, opened presents and baked a ham for dinner. As I spent more holidays with my husband’s side of the family, I began to understand that question better. My in-laws are antiques dealers who specialize in Christmas collectibles: depression era ornaments, porcelain snowbabies from pre-World War II Germany. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, their home looks like the inside of one of those country boutiques. Not a single surface, not even in the bathrooms, is left unadorned. Stockings, I found out, were not just hung by the chimney with care. They were filled with such bounty—chocolate! perfume! stuffed animals!—they couldn’t hang from the mantle, but lay beached on the hearth.

For some reason, Santa delivered presents to our house as we were getting ready for bed on Christmas Eve, despite the fact that we never left any cookies or milk for him.

And Christmas was not celebrated just on December 25, but for days on end, with a house full of relatives who ate party foods for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and lounging around playing cards and watching football. While watching Meet the Parents in the theater, I laughed way too loudly when Ben Stiller’s character stumbled in to the kitchen in his pajamas on Christmas morning only to find the whole extended family gathered around the table in their festive holiday sweaters.

I had celebrated Christmas all my life. But, as a young adult, I began to feel that sense of immigrant doubt as to whether I was American enough. My parents left Taiwan in the late 1960s and landed in the Midwest, where they raised my brother and me in the suburbs of Chicago. We had our tree, our snowmen, our trips to see the fanciful window displays at Marshall Fields. While Christmas has grown in popularity in Asia, even Christians don’t celebrate with the same kind of bedazzlement of the American yuletide.

By the time I was old enough to compare post-holiday stories on the elementary school playground, I had an inkling that my family might have done things differently than my classmates. For some reason, Santa delivered presents to our house as we were getting ready for bed on Christmas Eve, despite the fact that we never left any cookies or milk for him.

When I had my own children, I wanted to give them holiday memories that would not leave them wanting for more or feeling left out. But I also didn’t want a carbon copy of my husband’s childhood. This is America, land of reinvention. Be all that you can be! With the help of Hollywood and glossy magazines, I decided that I would do Christmas with ski sweaters and gilded pinecones, champagne and homemade sugar cookies. With Pavarotti softly singing Adeste Fideles in the background. Oh, and we needed to have a meaningful holiday, too. We’ll count down to the big day by lighting a candle every Sunday evening in December. We’ll donate clothing, food and toys to those less fortunate.

But things went off-script. During my kids’ preschool years, our main holiday tradition seemed to be developing high fevers. My younger son latched onto a stuffed animal that belts out "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer." My husband would prefer the cozy clutter of his childhood to the elegant simplicity I envisioned. And I can’t get anyone in my family to wear matching sweaters. It’s enough to make me barricade myself in the kitchen—mixing, rolling and baking, while Bono and friends cry, “Do they know it’s Christmas?”

And from that hodgepodge, some new traditions have emerged. The boys start asking to put out the Advent calendar and candles before the Thanksgiving dishes are even cleared. On a whim one year, we decided to visit a Christmas tree farm. That was eight years ago. Every December since, we have driven to the mountains and cut down a Douglas Fir. Another year, we went with my father to a Thai restaurant where my family often dined on Christmas Day. Other times, we seek out tamales (the best ones are handmade by a Mexican grandma at my children’s school). And while we don’t always have champagne, we always have cookies.

I may not know how to do Christmas, but I’m doing it anyway.

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