|Photo by Heidi Beeler.
This year, weâre not going to Pennsylvania for Christmas.
I know on its surface that statement is hardly a newsflash. Millions of people donât go to Pennsylvania for Christmas every year. But Pennsylvania is where my folks live, and this will be the first time since Reagan was president that Iâm not making that migratory cross-continental gamble winter travelers make, choosing between connecting flights thru Chicago, Denver or St. Louis. Itâll be my first Christmas since the JFK administration that opening presents Christmas morning wonât be signaled by my dad appearing with a steaming cup of coffee and Mom hunting for where she hid the dogsâ presents.
I know mixing family and holidays are an emotional minefield for many people, but I have to confess â I actually love visiting my parents at Christmas time. Itâs not that the ârentsâ house is perfect. My dad, a former Marine drill sergeant, does have a wicked sense of humor, and you will spend mealtimes feeling like youâre the unwitting guest at a celebrity roast, wishing you had more thoroughly practiced your hand-to-hand repartee. My mom, a small, copper-topped Scandinavian-American once described as âelven lookingâ by a coworker, does raise self-effacing to a level that will make you want to invest in assertiveness training materials. The smallest, fluffiest household poodle will try to snap your finger off each evening when the sun goes down, like a stand-in for the killer rabbit on a Monty Python set. You will wave to neighbors while eying their gun racks and NRA bumper stickers with misapprehension in the icy glow of inflatable lawn decorations.
Yet, despite its downsides, thereâs something comforting for me about returning to the people I grew up with. The yuletide visit in Pennsylvania is always kicked off with an explosion of dogs. This invariably leads to the traditional Excitement Piddle Avoidance Ceremony in which I am greeted at the door by Mom and/or Dad shouting some variation of, âHeidiâs home! Get the dogs outside! Donât let them see her!â Itâs not a moment youâll find in any Frank Capra film, but thereâs something heartwarming about being greeted by anyone who is so profoundly moved by your arrival that they pee in excitement every time.
Inside, the house is always decked out like Fezziwigâs party in A Christmas Carol. Candles and pine garlands line the window sills. The tree is covered in ornaments weâve collected and given to each other since my sister and I were in elementary school. Wooden elves and trolls, many of them carved by my dad in his garage workshop, stand in casual social groupings around the side tables. Mom stashes at least 4 tins of different kinds of Christmas cookies in nooks above the fridge or in pantries around her immaculate kitchen. Each year, we observe traditions that make our holiday special: eating rice pudding and dancing to a recording of Swedes singing Nu Ăr Det Jul Igen on Christmas Eve, because thatâs how Maâs family celebrated; opening presents around the tree on Christmas morning for Dad. And each year since I was little, weâd cap off decorating the tree by lying beneath it and looking up at the rings of lights mixed in with the pine branches.
So this yearâs decision to stay on the Left Coast wasnât an avoidance strategy. In an unguarded moment of work -exam -holiday-performance-related fatigue, Mom floated the idea that we might like to stay home for Christmas. My partner is in her fourth year of grad school in Boston, and talking to her long distance, the idea of spending her entire winter break together, rather than bouncing between parental guest rooms across the continent, was a gift. We decided to accept.
Staying together in our home as work and concerts wind down for the holidays has been a gift. But with Christmas Day looming in this unnaturally green and sunny state, weâre thinking about how to create that feeling of tradition that comes with celebrating Christmas with our families â about what traditions weâd like to choose for ourselves. Itâs our first year at this, so weâre a bit over-exuberant. Like your first year Out in San Francisco, weâre a little optimistic about how full we can pack our dance cards. So far, weâve penciled in ACTâs A Christmas Carol, SFGMCâs Home for the Holidays, a service at Glide Memorial Church, ice skating at Union Square, watching our full collection of Christmas movies (starring both Muppets and humans), toasting the holiday with all our various friends before they leave town, having dinner with all our various friends who arenât leaving town, maybe with side trips to Yosemite or Scandinavia or even the North Pole. Itâs anybodyâs guess how many new traditions weâll rack up this year.
So far, though, weâve got our Christmas tree up and accessorized in rainbow lights. They look like magic through the needles when you look from underneath with Nu Ăr Det Jul Igen playing in the background.
And my parents have sent us two boxes: one with a cookie tin packed with 4 different kinds of Christmas cookies; the other with a pink flamingo to decorate our California yard. Looks like weâre all scoping out traditions old and new.