Christmas for me growing up was magical. The tree and the lights, stockings, the candycanes, the music, the manger scene, the "specials" on TV, the stories both fantastic and real, the thrill of anticipation, the annual new dress, the piles of presents...All of it.
After Mass, our family would drive to my grandparents on Long Island, where there would be another tree, more decorations, more presents, a feast and the fun of being with aunts, uncles and cousins. It was, without question, my favorite time of year.
Later, as my immediate family grew more religious and the extended family less so, some tension crept in and clouded the joy. The Santa story began feel less like a happy enhancement and more like a tacky distraction. The piles of presents and the push to find the right thing for everyone began to feel less like merriment and feasting and more like stress and binging. The cousins mocked our religiosity. "Holy talk" of any kind was dismissed as ill-mannered. We began to feel like misfits and killjoys at the family party. The day itself sometimes felt more strained than celebratory.
Tension has been part of Christmas my whole adult life. I would say it's gotten worse over the years. Sometimes, it's been acute, sending me into depression. As I began to have children of my own, I wanted to give them the same magical experience I had had as a child. But I couldn't seem to manage it. I was too ambivalent about Santa Clause to be convincing. We were isolated either geographically or culturally from like-minded relatives. I have none of my grandmothers energy and talent for putting together a party. Trying to substitute the Dutch Sinter Klaas (on Dec. 5th) or the Austrian Christchild traditions never seemed to quite work. Every year I'd suffer waves of guilt and discouragement—either we were spending too much on things, or we were disappointing our kids out of a reactionary scrupulosity.
In recent years, this tension has gotten better in some respects, worse in others. As the kids get older, they begin to take on the burdens of preparations, so that they're less overwhelming, even delightful—like the time Maria built a gingerbread cathedral complete with flying buttresses and melted Jolly Ranchers for stained glass windows.
Some years we've gotten into a good Jesse Tree and Advent wreath routine, so that we really do experience spiritual preparation. With the youngest being 10 years old, the Santa Clause question is now moot. Sometimes we'll manage to get to at least one beautiful concert.
But we lack the sense of belonging-to-a-community that is so crucial a dimension of true feasting.