ONE of the joys of finding a husband is exploring the differences between the two families, assuming, of course, you’re fortunate enough to have two loving and welcoming families. This can be both a blessing and a curse. Obviously it’s a blessing, because my husband and I were welcomed into each other’s extended families, with one melancholy exception. But it can also be a curse, because two people have to make their expectations line up, and there are few things more deeply ingrained than holiday expectations. Rather than start their own traditions as a couple, they’re forced to split differences and navigate the shoals of examining things that people don’t usually think about.
Perhaps it was a reflection of my relative youth (I was twenty-one when my now-husband and I first met), but I came into the relationship with a heap of preconceived notions about what his family would be like.
My family has always been fairly small, one or two children per generation, not very many collateral relatives. At least on my mother’s side, women have been sent to college or other post-secondary education since at my great grandmother’s generation. They were, I’d always assumed, cosmopolitan. They are, in short, WASPs.
My husband’s family in many ways is the opposite. It’s large, it’s loud, and my husband’s generation was the first to earn bachelor’s degrees. While they live in a reasonably good-sized city now, in some ways they’ve never quite brushed off the dust from their extremely rural southern origins.
Christmas with my parents was more casual than with my grandparents, but it too was locked into traditions. My parents were and are religiously observant, so at some point in time we started celebrating Christmas on Christmas Eve, since Christmas morning was spent in church. Christmas Eve dinner means one thing—cheese fondue. To this day, my husband maintains that no one fed him that first Christmas he spent with my parents. Despite the rather large plate of crudités set out while we opened presents, my husband somehow thought the fondue was an appetizer and was puzzled when the apple pie made its appearance.
He caught me in the kitchen and whispered, “When’s dinner?”
I could only look at him in stupefaction. “That was dinner, you fool!”
“Oh. I’d wondered why your parents were eating so much of it.”
At my grandparents’ house, Christmas breakfast was always coffee cake made from the same recipe, year after year, no deviations. Then we would dress, not necessarily in business attire, but definitely not in jeans. Only then would presents be opened. After presents came Christmas dinner, which was really lunch. Again, my grandparents maintained a set tradition. Dinner always consisted of prime rib with horseradish cause (the horseradish for which was always grown by my grandfather), endive in cream sauce, and Yorkshire pudding.
My husband tells me that I missed the really big holiday shindigs, but Christmas, at least on his mother’s side, involved just about everyone they were possibly related to dropping in to eat the food heaped on sideboards and the dining room table. Some people brought dishes, but his maternal grandmother started cooking weeks before, and by the time Christmas arrived, the place was packed with food and family.
By the time I came along, the crowd at his grandmother’s house had dwindled to twenty or so, which was still far more than I’ve ever seen at a family holiday gathering. At my in-laws’ house, Christmas started out in well before dawn because my father in law would walk up and down the hallway outside the bedrooms crinkling cellophane and cackling, “Santy Claus was here! Santy Claus was here!” Breakfast, and then presents opened in our pajamas. After getting dressed, we trooped off to his grandmother’s house.
In retrospect, about all I can say about Christmas with my grandparents was that it made for better photographs, but I enjoyed them at the time.
I was relatively young when I met my husband, and hadn’t really experienced much of life beyond my WASPy ivory-tower bubble. But once we were together, we were never really apart, and I was folded into that large, noisy family gathering. It was intimidating at first, but I’ve found my niche.
My grandparents are dead now, but my husband and I never experienced Christmas like I remember them as a child because my grandparents, my grandfather actually, cut me off. I was welcome, but “we” were not, and that, to me, was unacceptable. My husband’s working-class family was far more accepting than my educated WASP one. Young, ignorant, and judgmental, I was surprised, even shocked, at how accepting they were.
One incident in particular brought this contrast into starkly high relief. While no explicit mention had been made as to just exactly what I was in regards to my husband, after one visit, his grandmother told us to take care of each other.
And she didn’t care.
The Very Important Lesson
No Christmas story is complete without a moral. I learned a lot about not just toleration, but acceptance from my husband’s family and their Christmas gatherings. Don’t judge books by their covers. Except the ones I write, because regardless of the cover, they’re all brilliant. No, really. Trust me. :)
Here's a peek into my latest
“The Advent Calendar.”
available now at MLR Press
Toby wanted children more than anything, and it bothered Derek to see the man he’d fallen in love with so down, but it also made him feel defensive, as if he, Derek, were personally responsible for the other man’s unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Whenever the subject came up, Derek felt torn between comforting Toby and rolling his eyes. Lately, it seemed like rolling his eyes won, and didn't that just make him feel like a prime,
But every time Toby started mooning on about the pitter-patter of little feet, all he could do was wonder just when it was Toby had been infected with the baby rabies. Symptoms included feelings of vague yearning, elevated levels of sentimentality, and otherwise inexplicable trips to Baby Gap.
The real danger of baby rabies, Derek thought darkly as he climbed down the ladder, was its communicability to those closest to the primary victim. The entire subject made him feel like dirt. He loved Toby more than anything. Was what they had not enough? Was he not meeting Toby’s needs? The idea hurt to think about, and made him feel worse than he already did these days.
Later that night, after perfunctory lovemaking, Derek lay awake, Toby snoring softly beside him. The rest of their evening had been pleasant enough, both of them backing away from the subject, an intricate dance of avoidance and unvoiced recriminations, neither saying what he really wanted or meant.
They were together, alone.