Some Christmas memories

1995…Jose (later my husband) working for a month in Bosnia as a New York Times

photographer. It was a cold, lonely, hungry month. Unforgettable.

By Caitlin Kelly

The holidays are a time of a lot of emotion. This year, like last, will be one with far too many empty beds and places at the dinner table — with an unfathomable 800,000 Americans now dead of Covid.

If you are one bereaved, I hope you can find some joy this season.

I thought I’d share some holiday memories, most happy. When I was single, I would spend it with my mother or my father and his second wife and son. I have to admit it wasn’t always enjoyable; my mother drank and my stepmother, although an amazing cook, rarely made me feel welcome in their home.

Since my father has four adult children by four women, one of whom I’ve never met and don’t want to, and one of whom refuses to reconcile with me after more than 15 years…we don’t even try for a “family” Christmas. It’s too messy and impossible. The closest we came was 2017, when Jose and I drove up to Ontario and my half-brother and his girlfriend joined us.

While my maternal grandmother was alive, her presents were always wrapped in silver paper with blue ribbon, from Holt Renfrew, Canada’s nicest department store. She was a lavish gift-giver…gone since 1975.

We had been looking forward for six months to spending four days over Christmas at a resort in Quebec. Of course, we cancelled, thanks to COVID.

Instead, we’ll have a tree and a lovely meal at home and just enjoy each other’s company.

A happier one!

Montreal/London, age 11

We lived — my mother and I — in a brownstone at 3432 Peel Street, midtown. That year she was the host of a TV talk show, and that Christmas we flew to London to stay with my aunt and uncle, both Canadians, but very well-known figures in British TV and radio. We had Christmas dinner with Montreal friends, then a trans-atlantic flight with wreaths somehow suspended across the aisle, then another holiday meal. I remember most fondly discovering clotted cream…swoon! And Hamley’s, for years one of the world’s best toy stores.

Cartagena, Colombia, age 23

My mother was traveling throughout Latin America, alone, for years, starting in this coastal city, then barely opened to tourism. We went the cathedral for Midnight Mass — and were pulled over and frisked by police in case we were going to do harm to the tourists, aka us.

We spent the day on the beach, unaware of possible heat stroke thanks to a steady breeze. We had pizza for dinner — then took turns in the bathroom, quite ill.

My favorite Christmas cookies!

Paris, 2015

Friends loaned us their apartment, in the most perfect location — a block from Rue Cler, one of the city’s best for markets and restaurants. Daunted by the high prices of restaurant meals, our Christmas dinner, eaten in their small kitchen, was a roast chicken. It was unseasonably warm and I walked over to the Ferris Wheel near the Tuileries and rode high above the city, sweaty even wearing only a sweatshirt.

Cuernavaca, Mexico, age 14

This was the worst of all, the night my mother had a full-blown manic episode and drove down the highway with her car lights off. I’ll spare the details, but it ended in a city where we did not live, at midnight, after she drove into a ditch. I left her there, leaving with two friends, and never lived with her again. I moved back to Toronto soon after and moved in with my father.

Toronto, age 15

My first Christmas living with my father and his girlfriend. I hadn’t lived with him since I was seven. I still remember the lavish gifts he offered — skis and a brightly colored patchwork quilt I used for many years. It felt good to be so welcomed.

Irvington, NY, can’t remember the year!

We attended midnight service at our church and it was just starting to snow as we left. “Let’s go to the lych gate”, said Jose. It was cold! He insisted and, under that small canopy, proposed to me there. He knew that Christmas Eve was a night of very bad memories with my mother, and wanted to re-brand it with a much sweeter memory. It worked!

Do you have a special holiday memory?

23 thoughts on “Some Christmas memories

  1. Carol

    What a lively thing Jose did to propose on Christmas Eve and change the significance of Christmas Eve got you both – May this year be Merry

  2. No specific memories. But I do have general impressions and scenes from various holiday traditions: lighting the candles for Hanukkah; seeing Nutcracker on stage with my mom and sister; and going to get sushi before watching Die Hard on Christmas Eve. Those are among my favorite holiday memories, and I love doing them every year.

  3. I remember forcing my parents to sit and listen to my sisters and I sing an entire Mitch Miller double Christmas album to them. it must have been torturous, but they stuck it out.

  4. In 1988 we drove to Florida from our apartment in Atlanta, to surprise Cathy’s family for the holiday. It was cold, in the teens and our new car was acting funny. We pushed on until we got to Valdosta, when the state patrol told us to turn around because of ice on I-75.
    It was late and very cold. We worked our way back north, checking for an open hotel. When we finally found one it was, shall we say, inadequate. We slept for two hours in a freezing cold room and set out for Atlanta.
    When we got home out tree was waiting for us, bare except for the silver star and our 1988 ornament. It was a little sad but comfort and joy were waiting at the top of the stairs. Our new set of red buffalo check flannel sheets lulled us off to sleep and we awoke to a brighter afternoon. We had a Chinese feast that evening and a loud hearty laugh every Christmas thereafter.
    If you, whoever you may be, aren’t having the merriest Christmas this year, I hope you can find a way to turn it into a laugh sometime. Good luck and thanks for the good reading, Caitlin.

  5. Your life, your travels and adventures, your writing,… you are one interesting individual! My favorite Christmases all involve family gatherings without major blowups. The one that comes to mind immediately was 1998 in Germany. My mother, my sisters, one brother-in-law and a young niece and nephew: the Christkindl Markts; Käthe Wohlfahrt stores; giant snowflakes; gluhwein; traipsing into the forest carrying homemade reindeer lanterns with a German preschool class, each class singing in front of the giant tree decorated with fruits and nuts/completely edible ornaments, warmth provided by the large bonfire; having our resort reservations lost which resulted in staying with a nearby German family in a very authentic traditional German home with authentic food; sledding; castles; it was all so magical!

    1. Thank you!

      What a fantastic memory — and thanks for all the details. I have been to Berlin (July 2017) and Munich (winter in my 20s) but never have experienced all this. It sounds lovely.

  6. What a rollercoaster of holidays you’ve had. Whew!

    The ones I remember have all been with family except for one, during my first year of college, was with a girlfriend across the country and her family–a woman who didn’t stick, but someone I’m still friends with.

    My memories of holidays go back to vague memories of Christmases with the Stevenses, close family friends, when I was two and a half and three and a half, at their farm near Portland Oregon.

    When I was probably 13, we had xmas with my maternal aunt’s family. My sister was four, and I suggested that she should watch to see if Santa Claus really came or if it was parents and aunt and uncle. She has a vague memory of doing just that, although she’s not certain if it’s a real memory or not.

    And then, after I was out of college, coming home to have xmas with family, and later, in my 30s, my best friend, who was teaching in Albany, a reasonable drive from Boston, would have it with us. After my parents checked out, ~20 years ago, I’ve always had xmas with my siblings and their families, both in the DC area, a long day’s drive from Boston, which I enjoy if the traffic’s not bad.

    Now Xmas includes my sister’s grown sons and their girlfriends, who are likely permanent fixtures, as well as my brother’s daughter, who is local, and her recent, and likely permanent fixture boyfriend. And that’s all good! My brother’s son has a wife and boy girl twin children, not quite three, and they haven’t left Minnesota since COVID began.

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