Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas at Our Place

Quite a few overseas friends have asked me how we – our particular hybrid family – celebrate Christmas. It's a mixed affair. Hybrid, like us. We have chosen appealing aspects of each culture and blended them in something that works with – finally – a minimum of fuss.

Neither Best Beloved nor I are into consumption – unless it be of tasty food or good wine. He can party, but I'm no social butterfly, and neither of us does tacky decoration so our Christmas is low key but quality. It was never a big deal in Cyprus anyway: Easter is the Orthodox calendar's big family celebration.

Cyprus was not a rich country when Best Beloved was younger. He recalls Christmas trees from his childhood, but they went up after about the 15th of December. He remembers presents, but they were small gifts bestowed by Agios Vassilis on January 1 (the Saint's Day) rather than delivered down the chimney on the night of the twenty-fourth by Father Christmas/Santa Claus. And Christmas/Agios Vassilis Day merged with another celebration: his parents' anniversary on December 31st.

My childhood Christmases were more developed celebrations. My mother decorated but, eschewing tinsel and plastic, she used glass, greenery, and Scandinavian straw motifs. The Messiah echoed through the house, and the smell of baking filled the kitchen. Although she used to make the Christmas pudding in the late summer, the run up to the 25th saw plenty of other culinary activity – including the naming, stuffing, and roasting of a big-breasted turkey -- usually after some big-breasted film star. My father's specialty was cranberry sauce – raw and flavoured with orange. He would turn out crocks full as my parents used them as gifts. My mother also used to make her own wrapping paper: from blocks of butcher's paper she would make dozens of sheets of hand-printed gift-wrap. One year she used a technique of painting with bubbles blown from a straw. I tried it a few years ago, but ended up with a mess.

Father Christmas left knobbly pillowcases at the end of our beds for us to find at first light on December 25th. Sometimes, he used my mother's winter tights. One year, when I was about 10, he didn't come and the outcry was so intense that he never skipped our house again. My parents also benefitted from his bounty – presumably my older siblings saw to that side of the arrangement.

Fast Forward. Suddenly I'm grown-up... well, I have a husband and a kid (or two...). An opportunity to continue old traditions and create new ones! Except things didn't work out like that. I hadn't reckoned on the pitfalls that beset bi-cultural families – and one of those was that Christmas hardly mattered a damn to Best Beloved. He just couldn't get into the whole stocking thing. Or the present thing “When I see something that I want to give you, Manamou, I give it to you – whatever the time of year... Why should I go out and look for something just to give you a present at Christmas?”… He let me do it, but I felt like I was wading through treacle, and for the first five years of our relationship, I had usually had at least three outbursts of frustrated tears before we arrived at his parents for lunch on Christmas Day.

Christmas in Cyprus was rapidly becoming fake, grafted-on, and commercial. Increasing wealth brought increasing tat, and houses started sprouting electrified plastic Santas. Baubles and tinsel appeared in the shops as early as November, and saccharine carols wafted over the sound systems of supermarkets and department stores. An increasingly frantic message shrilled: “Buy! Buy! Buy!” A religious holiday was morphing into a commercial extravaganza where, if people did not buy presents for colleagues' children, they were afraid of losing Brownie Points. My own children caught the fever young and became increasingly grasping. One of the more distressing aspects of our early Christmases was seeing them given tacky toys that rarely lasted the day – then having to dole out cuddles and sympathy when the wretched things broke.

Slowly Best Beloved and I achieved a balance. I relinquished my hopes of his joining in and he began to participate – unwrapping the presents in his stocking with increasing enthusiasm, and going out and buying – even wrapping! – some on his own. At some point about ten years ago my frustrated tears stopped, his parents began to come to our house for lunch on the twenty-fifth, and I mastered the art of turkey cooking (we go to them for lunch on Agios Vassilis Day and join the whole extended family for a meal and modest gift exchange).

I still struggle with my children's materialism. They see Christmas as a cornucopia of promise, whose reality inevitably disappoints. They generally get a variety of small, funny, useful gifts in their stockings – this year's selection includes marbles, spinning tops, a book about dragons, instructions for a variety of paper aeroplanes, a 'natural facial' kit, slinkies, books acording to age, slippers, a 'Rowan Atkinson Live!' DVD – and one larger present under the tree from Best Beloved and me together. In past years we have given skateboards, bikes, Little Tykes houses: this year's haul includes a compact stereo, some clothing, a nice set of wooden blocks...

We encourage them to put money aside for presents for their siblings which we match or augment, and I push for homemade gifts – drawings, candles, and mosaics have been well-recieved in the past. Flying in the face of a tidal wave of cheap junk: “It's just something for the kids, so it doesn't matter if it's poor quality” is an uphill battle, but one we feel is worth the fight.

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