Wednesday, December 8, 2010

On Nostalgia, and Other Guilty Pleasures


I bought an advent calendar yesterday, knowing my children are too grown up for such things. For just one rose-colored moment I found myself missing the days when my kids counted the seconds ‘til sundown when they could pop open yet another door for a chocolate treat, ticking off one more joyful day to Christmas.

Then I happened upon this essay I wrote in 1999. Ah, maybe they were the good old days, but I was too busy to notice at the time.

So for all you mothers out there, being envied by those whose ‘blessings’ have grown up, this one’s for you.

Yes, Virginia, There is a Perfect Christmas After All 

Each year I start the Advent season anew, moved by nostalgia, or more properly, amnesia. I can’t seem to stop myself. Come November, I’ll actually believe I’m going to make handmade gifts for friends and neighbors. I’ll actually believe that my spare evenings will be spent relaxing in front of a roaring fire, penning clever Christmas cards, while my children raptly lose themselves in the pages of a Childrens Literary Classic.

Here’s the fine print on my holiday fantasy. Children and relaxation rarely - if ever - go together. For me doing almost anything with my kids requires a total abandonment of self.  At certain moments, I'm likely to look like a female Stretch Armstrong with a sizable array of nervous tics.

Why?  Well, for one thing, during the holidays, my three year old greets the day lobbying for chocolate. The conversation repeats itself, day in, day out:

“No, Sweetie-pie, we don’t eat chocolate for breakfast.”



“But I said please.”

“The answer is still no.”


“You know the rule. No means no.”

At this point, my daughter begins to cry.

“The answer is still no,” I say, but my tone isn’t calm, it’s not firm, it’s every bit as wobbly as my little girl’s lower lip.

“OH, please, Mommy! Please!"

This goes on until I am the one who is crying. Somehow, I find myself fixing my Sweetie half a piece of toast so she can scarf down an egg-sized Christmas ornament made entirely of chocolate.

Having flunked the parenting-with-backbone quiz, I comfort myself by imagining the fun we’ll have doing holiday baking together. Here, imagine is the operative word and together is the spoiler. While I may begin with a notion of adorable star-shaped Christmas cookies with white and silver frosting, we will end up with Ameoba-shaped globs covered with what looks like mud but is actually what happens when a Jr. Male Scientist has poured all the food colorings into the same undersized container to see what would happen.

Oh well, I‘ll sigh. Maybe I’ll get my artistic jollies later, when we wrap presents. Somehow though, by the time I’ve finished doing the dishes, the wrapping supplies I assembled only moments earlier have been altered beyond recognition. The foil wrap is a crumpled bundle of fine lines and crow’s feet, the wonderful Glen Plaid has been shredded into tiny small scraps, pine cones are bleeding gold dust, and the tape has joined the Witness Protection Program. Instead of the smartly-wrapped presents with inventive decorative trim I’d seen in the Hollywood version of my life, I’ve landed in an out-of-focus home video, using Barney stickers to wrest together the ends of a confounding trapezoid of mismatched wrinkly-bits.

You would think, after days of scraping small scraps of Glen Plaid off a floor that is sticky with mud-colored icing, I would get the picture. I would realize that this whole Christmas spirit thing is a big fat sham perpetrated by the International Chocolate Cartel and the scotch tape industry. Somewhere in Mommy Purgatory, just around Labor Day, it’s surely being mass-produced and pumped into our veins along with those exotic-flavored-coffee cravings and a sudden desire for electrostatic dust cloths.

Even with Christmas two weeks away, however, I cling to the illusion of long winter evenings in front of that fire.

Ha! Not one of my chores has been reduced. In fact, both paying and household work sit undone in the week before school lets out, a period of command parental participation in activities conducted entirely on miniature chairs, begging my preschooler to please just mouth the words to the carols she’s been belting out at home. My one spare evening is spent devising an angel costume (surprise!) after the stores are closed (surprise!) for our candy extortionist who will be crushed if she can’t glitter like the rest of the children while climbing into my lap and hiding her head from the Three Wise Men.

Yes, that's my hand, and yes, she's just about to cry because she's so nervous!
By the time school lets out, we are absolutely in need of a break. There isn’t a pair of clean underwear in the house, the sheets haven’t been the same since their audition for the Bethlehem Players and the pantry’s sole occupants are arcane cookie ingredients that will eventually bite the dust without having fulfilled their golden-doughed destinies.

“Now,” I sigh, handing over the carefully-chosen, horrendously-wrapped teacher’s gifts. “Now my holiday will begin.”

Somehow, though, the chaos continues. There is traffic, parking, shopping and spending, all in service of creating a “magical” Christmas. There is my son, whose friends have all left town. He has become permanently connected to his video controls when not tormenting his sister in hopes of making something, anything, happen. There is my overtired daughter, whose nerves are shot by Santa’s omniscience regarding misbehavior.

By Christmas morning, the verdict is in. I spent more than I planned on too many presents that were opened in five minutes and consigned to a large plastic bin while my daughter cuts Xmas wrap into tiny pieces and my son is lost in the fog of war, via Nintendo.

I’ve finally earned my long repose in front of the fire, but I just can’t relax. I’m too busy wondering why I’ve done all this, worked myself into a frenzy trying to be the perfect mom, the perfect housekeeper. My husband and kids don’t give a flying sleigh whether our house sparkles, our cakes are made from scratch or our ornaments catch the light. So why do I?

It hits me suddenly that while the right hand was feeling vexed that it never got to do what it wanted, the left was feeling so guilty about such un-Mommy-like emotions that it was singlehandedly trying to reincarnate Donna Reed, June Cleaver and the whole Mothers’ A-team from my Fifties childhood.

After I’ve reconciled myself to this, I do begin to see that I’ve been expecting the impossible. My picky eater is not suddenly going to crave beta-carotene, my curious son is not going to resist the impulse toward messing around with color potions. Neither of my “hands-on” children is going to sit by serenely by while I use that wonderful shiny wrap to create right- angled preciousness. Furthermore, even on my best days, my house is not immaculate. Santa may be good, but he’s not that good.

Or is he? I ask myself.  After all, our house is not completely devoid of holiday magic.  It might not be the Mary Poppins super-powers I'd hoped for, but there is definitely some sort of paranormal activity.

Exhibit A: throughout Christmas day, each time I leave the living room, the neat piles of presents I just stacked under the tree will be mysteriously re-strewn into chaotic formation. Balls of crumpled wrapping paper fly spontaneously out of the trash bag and are once again scattered across the rug. Small plastic toys have multiplied like the Loaves and Fishes and are perfectly distributed for maximum damage to the instep of my foot.

Most surprising of all, next Fall, I will look back on this holiday and forget the frustrated expectations, the frenzy, the shame that my house never once got perfectly clean. Come October, I’ll get misty-eyed remembering the absorption with which my daughter minced the wrapping paper, my son’s triumphant cackle as he recreated Universal Dirt Brown Icing, my husband’s delight as he opened an amoeba-shaped bundle containing splotches of petrified mud.

I may not have created a Better Homes and Gardens’ table of homemade gifts.  On the other hand, I may have pulled off a harder trick than that, filtering the imperfections and frustrations of parenting through the lens of a camera held so tight with hope, it can render the past into an infinite series of expressionist, impressionist, chaotic splendor.

Make a comment and be entered to win a signed, wrapped copy of either of my books. (I’ll post the winners in the comments section the day after this blog is published.  Do check back so you can see if you won!  I'll ask you to email me your information so I can send you your prize.)



  1. Great post. Christmas always brings on a host of mixed emotions in me (mostly I feel harassed by it.)
    Most times I wish it came every five years instead of annually.

  2. I once wrote a newspaper column titled, "Yes, Santa, there is a Virginia" (about my still-believing daughter); she read it, grasped the grim subtext, and shrieked, "I HATE you! All my joy was believing in Santa!"

  3. Oh my goodness gracious, you dastardly creature. Girlfriends, for those of you who don't know him, Jon Jefferson is the fabulous author behind the pen name Jefferson Bass, whose Body Farm novels (a.k.a. Devil's Bones, Carved in Bone, Bones of Betrayal...) are wildly popular and also beautifully written mysteries. He's also a dear, cute man, if you find him at a writer's conference.

  4. My kids are 11, 5, and 3 and man, oh man does this ring true! Scarily, eerily true. I'll try to remember that "perfection" doesn't necessarily mean "great memories" this Christmas season!

  5. Thank you for this insightful and funny post. There is nothing that brings out the "Am I a bad mother" doubts in me more than Christmas. You helped me realize I am not alone in being far from perfect.

  6. Sheila, your posts always bring a smile to my face!

    And I'm very impressed that you are gift-wrapping your books for the giveaway. I was sure to mention that on Facebook. :)

  7. Sheila,

    You had me at "I’ll actually believe I’m going to make handmade gifts for friends and neighbors."

    Ha! You captured my feelings to a tee. And like you, I swear this year is going to be different. I'll let you know how that turns out.

    But do tell, is it better now that the kids are older?

  8. I can completely relate to your post as I am experiencing all of it now! As I type this my son is opening the door on his Lego Advent Calendar. He takes turns with his brother and is supposed to wait until his brother gets home to open it, but alas he has no patience. I have been asked every day since Nov 10th if today is the day to open the door. I have no idea how I stood my ground for so long!

  9. Oh, couldn't help but note Cindy's comment. I want a Lego Advent calendar. And maybe they never get too old, my 13-year old son asked for one the other day! Sorry, i digress. Sheila, what a thoughtful, descriptive, and entertaining post! I thoroughly enjoyed it!

  10. Sheila, I loved this. It is a perfect companion piece for my recent reality check . For most of my adult life I've felt the challenge of keeping wonderful Christmas traditions in my grandmother's inimitable fashion. I finally realized that there is simply no way I can do all she did. And she certainly would not have pressed me about it. So I decided to cook three things I remember most fondly: divinity, pecan
    crescents, and cheese straws...and savor them with my Alabama childhood memories.
    Beverly Frick

  11. Sheila, you have given me a new goal for the holidays: chaotic splendor. Love it!

  12. What a wonderful post! Nothing brightens up a holiday like family and unintentional surrealism!!

  13. Thanks all of you for your comments. Beverly, glad you winnowed down the things to a manageable delicious glory. The winners today, taken from a cast of numeric dice are LT (Lori L?) and Bob Cochran. Please Email me at and tell me 1) your mailing address, 2) which book you'd like and 3) christmas wrap or just plain gift wrap and 4) to whom you'd like them signed. thanks all of you!