Midnight Mass

We’ve gone back and forth about the Christmas tree. Mom isn’t sure we need a big one, that it will be one more thing to organize and store, and one day sell or ship to whichever new zip code we decide is home. I am in line to buy said tree, because I believe in Christmas magic and in making our home here, for however long our home is here. I suspect that her resistance has less to do with the tree, and more to do with the lingering notion that the holidays are a thing to manage. No matter how adult we, her adult children, become, no matter how capable we are of standing in lines and purchasing whichever amalgamation of metal and plastic her heart desires, she retains this lingering suspicion that once the tree is purchased and dragged home and the requisite level of Christmas magic is achieved, that it will become Hers again.

This worry is not unfounded. For the decades of my childhood and young adulthood, the tree was Hers. There were reasons for this on both sides. She’d carefully cultivated a collection of ornaments that were sentimental, aesthetically-pleasing, and varying in color and size and accoutrement. You could dig through the layers of tissue paper in the clear plastic Rubbermaid tubs like a geological dig, if you were so inclined. Past the holiday Barbie with her red glitter skirt. Past the Lion King Christmas ornament, and the round purple Barney with the half-cocked Santa hat. Past the daycare arts-and-crafts reindeer, candy canes with puff-ball noses and tiny handprints rendered by more expert hands in brown construction paper serving as antlers. The candy canes had been mostly crushed by the weight of history, and some of the finger antlers had disintegrated with age. Below them were the First Christmases, in 1993 and 1991. And each year, she’d lovingly excavate each one and find them all a place on the tree, whose plastic, spiny branches she’d fluffed to within an inch of their petroleum-based lives. We hated it, my sister and I. I can’t speak for her, but decorating the Christmas tree always felt, for me, like an unwinnable fight. As an eldest daughter whose need for achievement bordered (borders?) on the pathological, the Christmas tree was the site of an annual Cold War that played out in our living room. Maybe it wasn’t positioned properly, or the branches were not fully fluffed, or the lights not evenly spaced, or the ornaments placed imperfectly. My adolescent self hadn’t yet developed the instinct for Christmas tree feng shui, but I for sure knew that I was constantly fucking it up. So I gave up. I laid down my tinsel-strewn arms, and refused to participate. Thirteen-year-old me had met her Kobayashi Maru, and it came around like clockwork every December. Mom, for her part, took this to believe that I didn’t care about Christmas, or that I only cared insofar as I received presents and otherwise shirked responsibility. Teenagers. And maybe she was right, at least partially. Maybe I did prefer it when she did it, and it was perfect. But this was not so much weaponized incompetence, the way my sister refused to learn to make her bed, thus freeing her of the responsibility of making it. It was closer to abject terror at the thought of doing it wrong and thus ruining Christmas. It was an early indicator of the neuroses that would eventually send me careening into dive bars and therapist chairs. This was not Mom’s fault. It’s just that Christmas mattered so damned much, and neither of us intended on ruining it for the other. She did so by taking on so much, making sure each item of holiday decor was perfectly placed and each plastic leaf perfectly fluffed. No tiny ceramic Magi would dare step out of place in the perfect Nativity scene. I reacted to our collective desire for a perfect Christmas by running away from it. If teenaged me wasn’t around, I reasoned, teenaged me couldn’t screw anything up. In this way, both our ideas about Christmas made it harder for the other to enjoy.

Maybe these last two years have been a protracted opportunity for both of us to apologize in kind. I know now that what she wanted was for me to experience a perfect Christmas, not be a perfect kid. She saw only faults in her own parenting, and in the life she gave us — and used Christmas as an opportunity to cover over all of them in a light dusting of store-bought snow. She never realized that we never noticed her faults at all. Her obsession with the ritual of things — the decorating, the meal, the Mass, the gifts — also came from a deep anxiety that it wouldn’t be enough. But it was always enough, and I was, too.

This year, I will wait in line and procure a tree, and then I will take it home. When she goes to sleep, I will assemble it. Fluff the branches. Test the lights. Put the ornaments where she would like them — evenly dispersed, none too close together or too far apart. This year, it is My Turn to make the Christmas magic. To say, quietly, that Christmas isn’t a task. It is a shared responsibility. To say thank you, and apologize a little, for all the years I bathed in the magic without but did not help create it. To say I see all the love and work that it took to make it happen. I’m ready to say, “I know this is imperfect. But here it is — and isn’t it magical?”

I will not be angry when she inevitably moves the ornaments around, or moves knick-knacks from one side of our entryway to the other. Or, I will try to not take it personally, at least, when those things inevitably happen. It’s easier now, to let them go, because I no longer hear her saying, “You’ve done this imperfectly, and I can do it better.” What I can see now, with the clarity of years, is her asking, “Could we do this together?”

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A writer/teacher/designer split between the Midwest and the Middle East.

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Jamie Zipfel

Jamie Zipfel

A writer/teacher/designer split between the Midwest and the Middle East.

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