I remember going to my first sleep away camp when I was 9 years old. It was a horseback riding camp, and I loved (and feared–in equal measure) the horses I rode there every day. While I only have wispy memories of my cabin mates, trail rides, and canoe trips, I DO remember lying on my wooden bunk mid-week, forlorn.
All week the other girls had been receiving letters or care packages from their parents. Some parents were so doting that their little princesses received mail every day. I, on the other hand, had gotten nothing. I don’t think I would have cared–I was happy for the brief respite from my parents non-stop bickering and vitriol, which was sometimes directed at me. But now, quantified in envelopes and trinkets, I saw how cared for these other girls were.
My aunt in New York City felt my pain all the way from Mazomanie, Wisconsin because she sent me something the next day. Oh, my wonderful aunt, who understood that parents, whether they feel like it or not, are supposed to send their kids something their first time at sleep away camp. I still remember exactly what was in that padded envelope: a card and a small tan camel with long, dangling legs. I gloated down at the other girls from my top bunk, knowing, at least for that moment, that my family’s affection was just as tangible as theirs.
Of course summer camp wasn’t Christmas, and materialist orgies still ticked off the seasons of my childhood like clockwork: Barbie houses, Legos, My Little Ponies, Pogo Balls, bicycles, Light Brights, Lincoln Logs, Atari, train sets, sandboxes, Nintendo, and, of course, Jem. Then my parents separated in my early 20’s, and my Christmases got downright grinchy. My mom, as an atheist Jew, didn’t want to celebrate Christmas anymore–she’d only been doing it for us kids and my dad. My dad, well, I don’t know what his thoughts were, but we didn’t celebrate Christmas–as in the whole tree, dinner, gift exchange–ever again.
I spent one or two Christmases with a former boyfriend’s family–Norman Rockwell-style on his family’s 40 acres–then I started moving to different cities where I wouldn’t have to contend with my family on holidays. It was much less painful. My mom always sent me something for Christmas, “something” being a check or a deposit in my bank account. During those years my dad and my brother rarely acknowledged the holiday. Even when I came back to my hometown, there was no mention of a celebration or a gift exchange unless we were (thankfully) invited over by a family friend.
That doesn’t mean that I never buy my family gifts for the holidays–i.e. the kind you pick out and wrap, so they can later be unwrapped. They just never reciprocate. While I appreciate the checks from my mom, it isn’t the same as unwrapping a present. A present means someone took time out of their day, even if it’s a White Elephant affair, to think about you. And not only think about you, but to go through the arduous task of wrapping up whatever the thing is, so it will be a surprise when you open it. As for my dad and brother, I’d be lucky to get an email or a post on my Facebook wall saying “Happy Holidays.”
So this year when my current boyfriend’s family asked me if I’d come for Christmas, I didn’t think long or hard. They have an affectionate family with 5 small children where everyone spends the night on Christmas Eve then exchanges gifts in front of the tree the next morning. And it’s not about the tree–or about religion. It’s about warmth. And tradition.