“So Grace, what’s Bobby’s favorite part of Christmas?”
Fortunately, I had heard him the first time and repeated his answer.
When it was my turn, I lied. I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember deciding on an answer before I turned to talk to Edwin H. I had heard a few kids repeat what to me seemed like a safe response, a response that did not lead to more questions. I’m not sure when I figured it out, but at some point, I concluded that it was easier to lie than to explain to folks that we really didn’t do anything for Christmas, that we really didn’t have any Christmas traditions. The truth seemed impossible to them. It was just easier to lie.
The truth meant uncomfortable and disbelieving push back. It just didn’t feel acceptable. And the truth was, I didn’t know how to answer. Uh, no, we’re not really Buddhist—I don’t know. Maybe we are? All I know is that my grandmas both have these fancy red wall built-ins where where they pray with sticks of incense, but I’m not really clear what religion that is. Uh, no, we don’t really get together with our family—we are the only ones in the area. Uh, no, I don’t usually get to unwrap presents, but I have sort of, in some years. No, my parents never took us to the mall to visit Santa. It was easier to lie than to see the quizzical looks that soon turned into blank stares, and then sometimes to pity, a pity that didn’t seem to fit.
We really didn’t do much of anything for Christmas—especially in my elementary school years. Nothing consistent. The last wrapped gift from my parents to date was in second grade, so I suppose we must have done something that year. We moved around every two years—three different states—until we finally settled in New York on Long Island. And when my parents finally started going consistently to a Taiwanese church—every holiday was celebrated the same way.
It took them until I was in tenth grade to settle into a community, and suddenly we celebrated holidays. Twenty? Thirty? Forty? families would pile into a house for a huge potluck. The entire dining table, and sometimes kitchen counter would be covered with plate after plate of food, all the way to the edge of the table. The yummiest of Chinese delicacies, and some rather mediocre ones. There would always be sushi and a lasagna and a tub of KFC. All the moms would pitch in in the kitchen, dads conversing in the living room, leaving the family room or basement to us kids. Kids always served themselves first, then adults. We’d take our food back to our game of RISK or Mafia or our ginormous 5 deck card game of Big 2/Capitalism/Revolution (or its variant) with 20-30 of us sitting around a circle with little kids climbing on top of our laps and backs, weaving in and between us. We’d sit and play games for hours until our parents called us to leave—which was usually in the middle of a game. “Okay, 10 more minutes!” And that would of course turn into 30, and another 30, and we’d hear through the opened basement door bits of ardent conversation (now mixed gender) about Taiwanese politics or the cackling laughter of a mother. Every holiday was this fire hazard, this wonderful, delightful fire hazard. This was when my parents were the happiest with a house full to the brim.
These potlucks happened every holiday sometimes multiple times a month. Christmas though always culminated on Christmas Eve. And then it was Christmas Day. We woke up with no presents, no lavish meal, no tree—except for that one year my brother insisted, and we had no ornaments to put up. Christmas Day was always the biggest let down. All our church friends spent this day with their families, and that left those of us without…bored. It was at one of those holiday parties, some of us without families decided to make our own Christmas Day tradition. We saw Beauty and the Beast that year and it was great. And the next, we saw, Aladdin, which was good and the next, The Lion King, which, in my opinion was less good….
And then, the magic of Disney fizzled—I had no desire to see Pocahontas—or was it college that interrupted?
It’s still the closest thing to a Christmas tradition I’ve had to date.