I’m the atheist who geeks out about the holidays more than anyone. What could be better than a holiday season filled with family, great food, gifts, and even a tree in the house? It’s just pure happy, and as long as I can remember, always has been.
Growing up, our parents went to an immense amount of trouble to make the entire season wonderful every year. It was Norman Rockwell awesome x100. From Halloween through Christmas every year – totally amazing. Mom had separate elaborate decoration schemes for every holiday, so our house was a Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Christmas wonderland from October on. She also pulled out her sewing machine each September to hand-make our Halloween costumes. How fabulous is that?!
We’d generally make a trip some time just before Thanksgiving to visit the apple farms up in the mountain areas near town. We’d spend a day picking apples using long sticks with baskets on the end, watch them press apples to make cider, and buy cider from the farm shops. On years when we’d decided to go with a real tree, we’d stop at one of the big mountain tree farms and pick out a massive tree for Dad to cut down and drag back to the car – he’s a good sport and treated this like a treat when it really must have been pretty taxing.
We’d also visit the Nut Tree in Vacaville to see the interesting sights. That place had a crazy-unique gift shop filled with candy, seashells, unusual foods, complex local and world maps, and different kinds of cacti. We’d visit specifically for their annual scarecrow contest, which was a huge contest where artists and other local people would build unique and creative scarecrows and win prizes for their awesomeness. We’d admire the scarecrows, then head over to their farm stand and pick out five or six perfect gourds for our Thanksgiving horn of plenty.
For Thanksgiving, we’d have massive elaborate Thanksgiving dinners with family and generally some friends. Dad loves to cook and Mom had a full binder with detailed plans (updated over the years) on how to bring everything off without a hitch, from grocery shopping onward. They’d pull out the special Thanksgiving fine china, fancy silverware, and lay the heavy ivory-lace tablecloth over the Thanksgiving-orange sub-tablecloth for the feast, which also made it feel extra-special.
Before Christmas, we’d pick out fancy new velvety dresses and shiny shoes, then, feeling very regal in our spiffy outfits, head to the exotic Tanforan Park mall near San Francisco for pictures with Santa. Then we’d go to see the San Francisco ballet perform the Nutcracker, followed by a day of wandering through downtown San Francisco looking at the windows and fabulous holiday displays in the fancy department stores. We’d generally take a detour, too, to grab the best hot chocolate on the planet from Ghirardelli square.
The night before Christmas, we’d have another great feast with family who lived in the area, this time with the special Christmas china, gold untensils, and a green or red sub-tablecloth beneath the lace one. After dinner, everyone would open one family present. Then on Christmas eve after everyone left, Mom and Dad would stay up all night wrapping an immense number of things for under the tree. They were amazingly good at this. If they bought a five-pack of green and red socks, they’d wrap each pair separately. They knew that for kids, the experience of having more things to unwrap trumps the inherent joy of holiday socks. When we woke up on Christmas morning, the room was invariably knee-high with presents, including three or four big ones for each of us – the fanciest of which were generally left unwrapped except for a large bow to catch our delighted eyes as we descended the stairs at 4 a.m. They were rigorously fair – making completely sure my sister and I each got a precisely equivalent quantity and value of gifts for birthdays, Christmas, and all other events so we’d never feel like either of us was preferred in any way. They must have saved up all year for Christmases, and we were always overwhelmed with Santa’s extraordinary generosity.
They didn’t have to take all that trouble to make the holidays special for us every year, but I lucked out when it comes to parents. They went to an insane amount of trouble to make us happy at every opportunity – not just by taking us places and buying us things (although as typically materialist children, this was, of course, a huge treat) – but mostly by enjoying our company. We could tell they liked hanging out with us. They liked showing us new stuff and teaching us about the world and chatting with us and just generally hanging out and sharing our company. We were selfish, cranky, and difficult about as regularly as most children; but they loved us fiercely and always went out of their way to give us the most wonderful experiences a childhood can offer. When I think about the holidays, it’s their hearts that shine through everything – their smiles and laughter. Mom explaining how to listen to and appreciate classical holiday music… Dad finding wild walnut trees and and showing us how to collect and clean the nuts so we could eat them… all of us opening our advent calendars together to eat the December first chocolates each year and delighting at the naughtiness of chocolate first thing in the morning… that time a mouse escaped from my Aunt’s tree and ran across the floor in the middle of Christmas dinner… that time Dad got a new dartboard for Christmas and managed to break the massive sliding glass window in our living room with the first dart… Mom holding our mittened hands as they both pointed out the neat features of the elaborate San Francisco christmas window decorations…
If I live to be a hundred, they will always be my heroes for giving me a lifetime of incredibly happy family memories. Thanks, Mom and Dad.