California Christmas

December 23, 2011

When I was young, each Christmas was exactly the same, and we needed it to be that way.  We decorated our tiny country church on the first Saturday in December, then sat in the front pews together and sang all the same hymns. Advent wreaths hung from invisible wire on each side of the pulpit.  Each week one more candle would be lit, stoking our excitement about Christmas.  Dad would cut down one of the Douglas Firs that he had planted in his twenties, when his parents’ farm, Locust Hill, still sold Christmas Trees.  The tree he cut each year would be massively oversized, but he would just cut off the very top and throw it in the bed of the red Chevrolet to bring home for us to decorate.  It was always a red truck. Always.

The kids in my Elementary school all celebrated Christmas, and we could barely stand waiting during the weeks of build- up.  Our family attended the same parties every year:  Santa Claus at the Volunteer Fire Department, and the grab-bag at 4-H. Christmas Eve we ate lamb with Dad’s family, then were sent off to bed, too thrilled to sleep. We woke up earlier than dawn every single year, and snuggled in with our parents until it was time to open the pink and white stockings.  There was an orange in the toe. Always an orange.

When I was a child, Christmas was the same, always the same, which was exactly the way we liked it.

On the contrary, every Christmas I have celebrated with my own children as a parent has been completely different. One thing we have never done is just keep the girls in their own snug little beds and wait for Santa to drop down the narrow Brownstone chimney. Sometimes we have slept at their grandparents’ house, walking through some of the elements of the Christmases that were mine. Sometimes we have slept at DH’s parents’ house, decorating the tree on Christmas eve and eating shrimp cocktail, in their tradition. Once we were in the Adirondack Mountains in a blizzard with my entire extended family, and had to dig out all the cars for hours in the morning.  We have also woken up on Christmas morning in a borrowed Paris apartment to find that Père Noël, the French skinny Santa, had left the girls a letter and a few trinkets from the gift shops by Notre Dame. One year we spent Christmas walking up and down a sunny, freezing beach in Barcelona.

This year, we are here in California.

Abigail in the De Young Museum, with her favorite, Venus

Instead of driving through the snow to a country church trimmed with the citrus mint of evergreen boughs, we are walking through the Lower Haight of San Francisco, the girls learning what pot smells like. A filthy, angry homeless man came into the diner when we were eating breakfast one day, ranting and raving and demanding we give him money and our breakfast.  When we ignored him, he shouted out, “I hate Christmas!  I have no country! I lost my country a long time ago.  Just shoot me, my life ain’t worth a thing!”

Read closely: the red stripes say, "Free."

We visited Alcatraz Island while we were waiting for Christmas.  On Alcatraz, agave plants cling to the rock, and the cells are rusting iron.  Native Americans occupied the island for fifteen months back when I was getting myself born, and they carved the hopeful word, “Free” into the stripes of the sign hung over the abandoned prison.  There is no Christmas Tree on Alcatraz.  Instead, we gazed up the bay at the two red ladders of the Golden Gate bridge.

We drove to Monterey, listening the whole way to the audiobook of John Steinbeck’s novel, Cannery Row, which is of course not at all about Christmas.  When we got there, Abigail wanted to see The Palace Flophouse and Grill, and Lee’s Grocery. Those places Steinbeck described are gone, of course, replaced with bars and stores that sell sweatshirts and salt-water taffy.  We walked down the Row to the Aquarium, where we stood staring into the tanks.  No wreaths there at the ocean, just sheets of glass, blue water within.  We watched billows of Moon Jellyfish, an injured bird tin soldier standing sentinel on his one remaining leg, and a school of sardines, shifting and glimmering like a satin curtain blowing in a wind.

With my new-fangled phone I took fake-old-fashioned pictures of Grace staring at the jellyfish rising and falling in their tanks.  During lunch, the girls traded binoculars back and forth, both watching through the restaurant window as an otter fished and lunched alongside our table.  The otter would flip on his back and use his stomach as a tray, which the girls found so delightful that they told the story again and again.  This is how winter came to our family, served up on the belly of an otter.

We also found this remarkable creature hiding in green leaves in the water, just next to a rather astonishingly graphic video of another father seahorse giving birth to his tiny pink babies.  The green seahorse in the tank was a miracle of evolution, shocking proof that over a million years, nature can do some astonishing things with color and texture and form.  Nature, too, changes every year, but slightly, and in ways that we never could expect.

Look close. I swear this is not a plant, but a seahorse.

On the morning of the Winter Solstice, we woke to the sounds of waves and birds screaming off the deck of the hotel in Monterey.  The sun rose, perhaps a minute earlier than it had the day before, and I was there to watch it peek over the mountains. How strange to be there at all.  Because of a thousand tiny accidents, I was waiting for Christmas on a coast where the sun rises over the land, and sets in the ocean, rather than the way it always has before.

I turned to take a self-portrait, the returning sun outlining me in the here and now, as I waited for this Christmas, so different from all the other ones we have celebrated with our kids.  The morning sun in California is not like the advent candles, or the strings of colored lights we always put on the tree.  That light throws me into shadow, where I can see that I am no longer that child, waiting for the soothing repeat of each year’s same Christmas.  I am this mother, with this amazing husband of mine, making a tradition of travel and change for our girls every year of their lives.

This year at Christmas, we won’t go to Church.  We will instead go out to find what Steinbeck called, “Our Father Who is in Nature.”  Like Hazel and Doc in the book, we will wade into the water and pick up shells all day long, just up the coast at Stinson Beach.  Like we always do when we see DH’s family, we will open presents wrapped in Auntie Laura’s beautiful rice paper, rather than the shiny tinsel bows and red-and-green paper I remember from when I was a kid.

I can’t say for sure what I think of this habit we’ve established of never having the same kind of Christmas. Things like this are truly a stark either-or:  you can’t travel everywhere and also be in one place.  DH and I have come to crave novelty as much as I used to crave my own family’s traditions.  There is such a big world for us to see, and to show the girls.  There are so many ways to celebrate Christmas, and in so many places.

And therefore, we celebrate the Solstice with an otter.  We mark a snowless urban Christmas among the Painted Lady Victorians of San Francisco. We gaze in awe at the pink jellyfish instead of a glowing white candle during Silent Night.  We celebrate the miracle of evolution, watching that green seahorse who seems to try to be turning himself back into a plant.  A seahorse, rather than Mary, gives birth to our amazement.

We each get only one childhood.  Like all the best things, it ends, and you can never go back.  This is the world I am giving to my children, hoping they lap up the good parts and miraculously forget the bad.  Each Christmas we find ourselves somewhere new, and never wake up that day at home.

Our family Christmas tradition?  Always an evolution, always a change. Always.


Hilary Mead December 23, 2011 at 9:05 am

Launa, this is so gorgeous — the photos and the words. What a gift to give your children: resilience, adaptability, the ability to find wonder and meaning in the new and the strange. I also love the idea that we don’t consciously, pro-actively create traditions as parents. A lot of time we back our way into them. As we approach our first international Christmas, I find myself guessing it won’t be our last. xox

stephanie December 23, 2011 at 3:37 pm

merci pour partager avec nous…et bienvenue a mon état, sans la neige blanche, mais avec beaucoup de soleil. xo

Launa December 23, 2011 at 3:38 pm

We love it, Steph! Forget the red and green — I love California blue and sun.

GailNHB December 23, 2011 at 11:02 pm

Your daughters are very blessed to have you and your husband as their adventurous, thoughtful, fun-loving parents. And you are blessed to have each other. Have a wonderful time in California.

Merry Christmas to you all.

Carol December 27, 2011 at 11:47 am

Loved it Launa! Even though I was the one to give you the same ol, same ol for so many years. I love the parents that you two are and wish I could start over after watching you and your cousin,Kristen parent so differently than I did.

Just glad we get to share some of your life with you now. It is a good one!

Marge January 15, 2012 at 5:36 pm

I enjoy your blogs more than you can imagine……look forward to them…re-read them.

Just back from a from a fun brunch with your folks, and thought perhaps there would be a blog about your exceptional birthday party, which they described with gusto. And to think you are not only an amazing writer, but also have a hidden talent, and you sang all night long and made them very happy and proud.

Keep writing. You have a wonderful way with words…a veritable wordsmith.

Marge January 15, 2012 at 5:38 pm

I enjoy your blogs more than you can imagine……look forward to them…re-read them. Just back from a from a fun brunch with your folks, and thought perhaps there would be a blog about your exceptional birthday party, which they described with gusto. To think you are not only an amazing writer, but also have a hidden talent, and you sang all night long and made them very happy and proud. Keep writing. You have a wonderful way with words…a veritable wordsmith.

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