Welcome back. I hope that you all had a wonderful holiday season and enjoyed good times with your friends and families. I did. My “sister-in-love”, as she likes to call herself, came in from Italy with my nine year-old niece. They are spending their three-week vacation here with us in Maui. Asia came in from New York. We have a full house and I am relishing every minute of the noise and chaos. I wouldn’t know what to do with a quiet Christmas.
Still, even with a full house, I am a bit unnerved. Suddenly, I am the matriarch expected to lead the holiday festivities and I am not even sure I know how to do all of this without my mom. This is normally her role and without her here I feel uprooted, in the wind, even inadequate.
So, I decided to take this first Christmas on Maui easy on myself, allowing a little extra space and time to step in to my new role. I wanted to live up to our family’s standards but I did not want to be rigid in them. That would just stress me out. My goal was to be fluid. Things could not possibly be the same but I would try to hit all of the important beats.
I got off to a good start. The day after Thanksgiving is hallowed as a day of decoratation in my family. So, that morning, outside on our lanai, Michele, Jada and I draped our coconut tree in flashing lights instead of setting up an elaborately dressed pine inside. The smell of a fresh tree in the house is nostalgic but it seemed forced and artificial, potentially overpowering the salty taste of the sea swept in by the trade winds. I forgot to play the traditional, classic carols and Christmas gospel while we draped the tree. Mike put on some reggae. I didn’t beat myself up too much about the music. I let it slide.
On Christmas Eve, we cooked all day in preparation for a dinner party at our neighbors’ house. That felt right, everyone jammed in the kitchen together, elbow to elbow, while the kids sat in the living room and watched old Christmas specials like “Frosty the Snowman” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas”. But by the time we got back home after dinner, it was almost midnight. We made a manic attempt to wrap all of the gifts before we crashed. I forgot to Netflix “It’s A Wonderful Life” while we wrapped, a tradition held since my grandmother was a kid. Mike Pandora’d Christmas carols instead. I think CNN was on the tube at the same time. And, I missed the smell of sweet potatoes roasting in the oven and collards bubbling on the stove. As we cut and taped, there was only the faint stink of leftovers from our Seven Fishes feast and the smoky smell of hot oil left sitting on the stove from the random fried chicken that I’d forced on to the menu.
We did buy Jada an intimidating mound of gifts. Over the top gift giving is another family tradition, the practice never a reflection of how well or poorly we’ve done for the year but a constant threshold to be reached no matter the circumstances. It took her two hours to open everything. That was satisfying. But I didn’t make her a Christmas breakfast of pancakes, bacon and eggs after she was done. Italians don’t eat before noon, just little shots of espresso and maybe a dry cookie or piece of bread, and they don’t make exceptions for Christmas. Jada was content with a little bowl of grapes.
Dinner was a simple tray of roasted lamb and potatoes. It was good, but we didn’t hold hands and bow our heads and offer the Lord our thanks. At my mother’s table, we each take turns saying a prayer before we even lift our forks. Jada honored her Nana better than I did because before she would allow anyone a bite, she stood in her chair and insisted that we all hold hands. Then, she proceeded to sing a somber Hawaiian prayer that she’d learned at preschool. No one understood a word, except for the “Amen” at the song’s end, but the spirit of love and gratitude settled quietly over the table and we ate well.
There is nothing wrong with spending Christmas Day in a bathing suit or drinking a lilikoi smoothie for Christmas breakfast, especially if it is made from the fruit of your own tree. Gathering on the beach after opening gifts beats huddling around the TV to watch another re-run of “A Christmas Story”. Accommodating the culture of your guests and extended family, making room for their standards, is okay too. But next year, some things, the important things that honor my own history and culture, the things that I want to pass on to my daughter, will be different because I will work more consciously on making them the same.