With Christmas only days away, our preparations for the holiday have gone into overdrive. Anna Lee and Oliver have busied themselves drawing cards for their teachers and cutting and gluing to make a special present for the classmates whose names they drew in their classroom lotteries. Even Samuel has come with Czech carols to practice for his preschool’s holiday Christmas program. They are completely immersed in getting ready for Christmas Day and a mention of homework or housework obligations falls on deaf ears. Christmas is coming. It’s in the air, and the children have caught the spirit of the holiday.
I’m happy to watch their excitement as it builds. It is contagious, and it’s helping me to get what I need to get done each day with a mostly cheerful face. Sleep is scarce in the month of December and obligations are many. I’m grateful for the children to give me a reason to relax, take a deep breath and try to appreciate the anticipation and the build-up.
It’s hard not to lose my temper when the tiny gold balls that I’ve just hot-glued onto Anna’s bead box for her friend have popped off, again. But we search under the dining table for the wayward ball and glue it back firmly in place. Anna wraps the bead box in green crepe paper and ties it with a red bow. She’s pleased with her handiwork, and I’m grateful for the Czech tradition of hand-making gifts. When I see Oliver’s teacher at the Christmas fair; she’s wearing the hand-made clothes-pin bead heart that Oliver made her. I can tell he’s proud.
As Radek stood over the stove one evening twirling a “cake pop” dripping with hot chocolate icing and trying unsuccessfully to get the sprinkle snowflakes to stay perfectly flat on the rounded pop, he came up with many better ways he could be spend his evening. Beer and adult company were on the list. Children’s holiday crafts were not. Still, I know that neither of us would trade our current lives for life before the kids.
Two weeks ago, one of our children’s friend’s father’s had a sudden and fatal accident. When I heard the tragic news, I didn’t know how to react. No one wants a child to experience the loss of a parent. Ever. I cried. When I had to tell my children that their friend’s father had died, I cried some more. So did they. We sat in the car by the children’s school and cried together. Then Samuel asked me to stop crying. I did. We drove home, I made dinner, and I tried to think of something to do to keep my mind off the sadness.
I know that in Virginia where I’m from, neighbors, friends and church members bring food to the family in grieving. I didn’t know the Czech culture, and I didn’t want the family to have to deal with speaking with me. When the family invited me to attend the funeral I was relieved to at least have something concrete to do. I’d never been to a Czech funeral, and I haven’t been to that many funerals in the US, either. Radek was away, so I went to the florist near the children’s school. I bought flowers and asked her how and when I should give them, and what I should expect. I stood by myself in the unheated chapel and listened to the priest speak on behalf of the grieving family. Although I didn’t understand all of his words, I could feel the sadness around me. Because we were so closely wedged into the tiny chapel, with some people standing outside on the chapel steps, I felt we were united, at least for a moment, in the strength of our grief. After the funeral, I didn’t know where to go or what to do. It was a strange feeling being in a different country and experiencing something as personal as a funeral by myself. But there were the children to pick up from school, and then dinner had to be made and bedtime stories read.
That night when the children were in bed, I had to do something, so I began to bake in earnest. Since Anna Lee was born on December 24, we always celebrate her birthday a few weeks earlier. At Anna’s request, we baked an elaborate yellow cake with butter cream frosting, fondant and an intricate marzipan owl on the top. For her sleepover party, I bought berries and kiwi and made a fruit cake with cream cheese topping. We served children’s champagne, and we celebrated her ninth birthday.
Our friend who’d lost her father celebrated with us, and I was afraid it might be inappropriate to spend time and energy preparing for a birthday party while another family was grieving. But our friend’s mother said she was glad her daughter could spend a few hours with the other kids. She wanted her daughter to laugh and play, just like she had always done. We served cake and pizza and American-style buttermilk pancakes. Anna Lee and her friend made decorations for their stuffed animals and spent a lot of energy coaxing the boys away from Anna’s room. The party lasted until dinner the next day, and when we said goodbye, we agreed she would come again soon. It wasn’t much; I was glad to have done something.
Now that the hustle-and-bustle of the pre-holiday frenzy is finally giving way to the more restful, calmer days of the holiday, I am ready for a dose of peace. There are still cookies and Christmas sweets to be baked, and cake pops waiting to be wrapped in baggies and tied with bows. I haven’t yet read “The Night before Christmas,” although I plan to bring it out for the children on the afternoon of December 24, when we’re all at home preparing for Christmas dinner.
Our traditions will be a little different this year, and perhaps a little subdued. For the first time ever, we’re spending December 24 with only the children. We’re traveling to visit Radek’s family on December 25 for a traditional Czech Christmas and then my parents will arrive before New Year’s. Eventually, there will be plenty of hubbub and frenzy; but not on the Czech Christmas Day.
In years past, every detail of our bi-cultural holiday has been discussed and debated until both of our favorite Christmas traditions are accurately reflected in our family’s holiday experience. This year, every time I ask Radek about our menu or our plan for December 24, he says, he just wants to relax, to enjoy the children and not to spend a lot of time standing in the kitchen. He won’t commit to a menu or a game plan. Although I’m a bit frustrated, I understand his need to keep the holiday simple.