EVERY YEAR when December rolls around, I think of my mother’s Christmas cookies. I can smell those delicate sugar cookies rolled and shaped by cookie cutters: Santa, holiday wreaths, Christmas trees and reindeer. She made rum balls from ground vanilla wafers and pecans. Her walnut snowballs melted in your mouth.
My mom kept her many Christmas cookie recipes written in German on index cards crammed into a recipe box. My brothers and I assisted her by grating lemon peel, sifting flour and decorating cookies with buttercream frosting and rainbow sprinkles. We gave Rudolph his red nose. We baked until we felt our backs would break, but we had Christmas cookies well into March. My dad played Christmas music. Bing Crosby sang White Christmas and Nat King Cole sang The First Noel.
My mom’s Christmas cookies felt all-powerful. We always thought we had the best teachers in elementary school because my mom gave our teachers Christmas cookies on elegant crystal plates wrapped in clear cellophane and tied with a bow.
I would build on this tradition by baking gingerbread cookies every Christmas. My children gave them raisin eyes, noses and mouths along with raisin buttons, and left some on a plate for Santa Claus to eat.
I am grateful that happy Christmas memories outweigh the disappointing ones I have experienced. I am aware that many people feel depressed over the holiday season, which never quite measures up to our expectations. A sad memory, a traumatic event or an unforeseen disappointment might taint the holiday season and evoke painful memories every year. Christmas can bring unrealistic expectations and put a financial strain on people too.
I know that Christmas is not about how many presents you buy or how fulfilled you feel from opening presents. It’s about tradition. The traditions that we make and follow sustain us through the good and bad times during the holidays. They are like a thread pulling us through the years. In hindsight, they become more meaningful over time.
Everyone will experience ups and downs during the holiday season – just as there are highs and lows during other months of the year, but negative experiences in the past don’t have to define the present or the future. The good times can outweigh them.
We don’t have to duplicate all of the traditions we grew up with. We can start our own, and we can cherish the memories that we can no longer experience. The Christmas my dad bought us ice skates created a Christmas tradition of ice skating on frozen ponds in the woods every holiday. The Christmas breezes in Trinidad remind me of those cold, snowy winters with the wind whipping our faces until they felt numb. There is no sadness in those wonderful memories.
Over the years, we lose many of the people we love or sometimes the ones we love just can’t be with us, but the traditions we have shared with them can lift our spirits forever.
We make those Christmas memories to unwrap every year. They are the real presents that symbolise the holiday.
In our quest to experience the perfect holiday, we worry about making people happy, and we forget we are not responsible for others’ happiness. In our perfect Christmas picture, we imagine we shape and control this holiday, but it always unfolds in an unexpected way.
This Christmas, I hope everyone considers and appreciates their family Christmas traditions. Build on them and create new ones. Remember random acts of kindness can make someone’s Christmas and uplift our own mood. Giving from the heart always boosts our happiness.
Surely there will be sad moments to face over the next month, but they don’t have to feel overwhelming – especially if you talk to someone about how you’re feeling. Remember no one should feel alone or lonely during the holidays. Remember to reach out to friends, family and the less fortunate among us.
For the next three weeks, I will share Christmas stories that have created both happy and sad memories. I’ve started with this story of the wonderful smell of Christmas cookies, which far outweighs the memory of our aching backs or the drudgery of scrubbing buttered cookie sheets for hours on end.
Traditions provide memories that sustain us and a routine that gives us some semblance of control in this emotion-packed holiday season.
Next week, I offer you a Christmas memory from the first Christmas in the pandemic, just to show how light can shine through the darkest times.