Reflecting on a Homemade Holiday

It is December 3. I find it hard to believe that a year has already passed since last Thanksgiving, and Black Friday, and Cyber Monday. It feels like I’ve only just purchased my cashmere woolen peacoat, just broken in my spanking new platform boots and already my coat is getting pills, and I’m coveting the next pair of shoes. As doorbuster sales get extended by 4 and 5 days past Thanksgiving and the pile of promotional spam grows in my inbox, it’s clear that the holiday season has been fully usurped by the giants of e-commerce.

This time of year used to induce anxiety in me. What should I buy and for whom? Had I gotten enough presents for everyone? Did I add enough items to my own Christmas list? Will everything get shipped before December 25? But these days I’m free because in my family — on my dad's side at least — we don’t buy each other Christmas presents anymore. Instead we do Homemade Christmas.

The rules are simple. Each participant is only responsible for giving a gift to their randomly assigned family member and all gifts must be hand crafted by the participant. That’s it. It’s basically an ‘Etsy Secret Santa’ except in this case, we Wheelers are the ones doing the knitting and sewing, collaging and carving. We get our assigned recipient a little after Halloween and spend the autumn perusing Pinterest before getting into craft mode ourselves. We always exchange gifts on December 23.

Whenever I think back to the Christmases of my childhood, I’m brought back to a narrow Baltimore townhouse on Keswick road. My Grandmom Elspeth moved there in the 1960s, and every year on December 23, the house would fill with friends and family for her annual Christmas caroling party. I remember the aromas most — of chili and chicken salad, eggnog and punch, the floral perfume of old ladies, and the slightest whiff of tobacco that hung on her clothing when I’d sit beside her on the piano bench.

My favorite part of the whole event was the singing. Towards the end of the night, after the adults were full of eggnog, Grandmom would sit down to her antique Steinway and play accompaniment as guests gathered around to sing yuletide carols. As her youngest grandchildren, my sister and I would sit beside her on the bench, turning her pages. When I got older, I’d bring my violin along and play the harmonies. Her favorite tune was Hark the Herald Angels Sing! We’d sing all four verses, her operatic voice, floating above the pack.

The Christmas Party was the main attraction around which all other aspects of the holidays revolved. Naturally, gift-giving was always part of the picture. So we would exchange presents in the post-party glow of the following morning. I played Santa, twinkling around the living room, delivering the gifts under the tree to each person who had been able to trek down to Baltimore that year. In those days, everyone bought gifts for everyone but I honestly don’t recall anything I ever gave or received.

It was 2012 when Grandmom got sick. It started as a nagging cough that turned into a cancer diagnosis. She decided to go the natural route, the no-chemo route. At 83, she explained that she was almost ready, even excited to take another step on the journey of life. We, her family, were less excited by the curiosities of the afterlife and unprepared for her departure. There was no telling how much longer she’d be able to play her Steinway.

As Christmastime approached, it was decided that hosting the party would be too taxing. While her spirit remained lively, her body had begun to whither. She was always tired. So we would have a smaller gathering with family.

I don’t know whose idea it was first — it may have even been mine — but we all agreed that giving Grandmom more worldly possessions didn’t make sense anymore. She was never particularly attached to things anyway. So we decided to do an experiment — we’d each handcraft a gift for Grandmom and draw names for a secret-santa style exchange as well. Homemade Christmas was born.

That year I didn’t play Santa. The gift-giving cascaded from maker to recipient. With each gift exchanged, Grandmom got something too. By the end of it, the room was filled with the fruits of our creativity. There was a batch of fresh home brewed beer from my dad. A package of herbal salves and remedies from my acupuncturist uncle. A salt crystal lamp from my mom. A knitted scarf from my aunt. Pottery from my cousin. Hand crafted ornaments from my aunt and uncle. A CD of original music written and performed by my sister. An original framed collage from me. And many baked goods.

Then we sang carols. Just like past years, we surrounded the Steinway and sang all of the verses of the holiday repertoire.

Our first Homemade Christmas was our final one with Grandmom. But it has been nearly five years now, and the tradition continues.

When I tell people about Homemade Christmas I’m generally met with positive reactions. “We should do that,” they’ll say. “Why don’t we?” Others will act as if we’ve made a political decision — like they respect our choice but it could never be theirs. “That is so your family” they’ll say. I’ll nod my head and smile because it is. The Wheelers are a clan of makers.

Most people agree that Christmas has become a celebration of excess. They’ll admit they’re trying to downsize. But it’s hard to change a holiday that is so steeped in family tradition. Even the exercise of buying meaningless crap for everyone you’re related to is part of a holiday ritual. And rituals are part of who we are. They connect us to the people we love.

As a millennial coming of age in this turbulent era, it seems that many people are so laser-focused on retaining their own traditions and rituals, that they don’t think to consider the why behind what has been drilled into them. The idea of reinventing tradition or creating beautiful new ones is a foreign notion to so many. But as I build my own adult life, there will always be room for the beautiful and meaningful. And most of the time, those things are homemade.