Friday, December 17, 2010

So Last Century

Published in The Stillwater NewsPress, December 2011

Sometime on or around Christmas Eve, my mom would bake festive cookies and arrange them onto plates.  Had we simply been able to enjoy eating them around the kitchen table – as I was pretty sure most families did with their holiday treats - those cookies would have posed no threat.

But we knew what they meant.

The cookies first meant making a decision – which name to add to the list.  Each of us had to contribute one name.  Mom didn’t negotiate on this point.  One house per kid, no exceptions.

When we were young we simply chose a best friend or favorite teacher.  But coming up with a name during our teenage years was excruciating.  We spent hours agonizing, carefully selecting people based on how far removed they were from our social network. Generally speaking, even the best of friends couldn’t be trusted to remain silent.

Silence was essential because it would not do to have details of our family’s cookie delivery method spreading like wildfire through the halls of Stillwater High School.  In our family, ringing the doorbell and saying Merry Christmas while handing over a plate of cookies was too mundane.  My parents had something more grandiose in mind. 

Every year, the teenagers made it a point to explain to my mom that Christmas caroling had become obsolete around the turn of the century and was entirely too over-the-top for modern society.  Mom remained unmoved by this historical fact.  Caroling was just as much a part of Christmas as the tree and the gifts underneath it.  So we climbed into the car and went caroling every year – despite obstacles such as freezing temperatures or protesting teenagers.

We posed a formidable caroling assemblage.  I remember once when a teenage boy opened his front door to find us standing there belting out Christmas cheer with varying degrees of enthusiasm.  He froze.  His parents hadn’t briefed him on caroling protocol before leaving for the evening and the poor kid had no idea how to proceed.  So he stood there bravely, shifting uncomfortably, until he could finally grab the cookies and mumble “thanks” before shutting the door.  As a fellow teenager I empathized deeply with the ordeal we had put him through and felt he had earned the right to eat every last cookie on that plate.

My dad contributed to the caroling list, and one year he chose a friend who lived in Perry (a thirty minute drive from Stillwater).  We trudged wearily through the darkness onto the porch of that final house, rang the doorbell, and began singing.  The door was cautiously opened by my dad’s friend’s next door neighbors.  We were suddenly alert, a little panic-stricken.  My youngest sister was the most traumatized, as she was standing front and center holding our last plate of cookies.  Following my parents’ hand signals, she did her best to nonchalantly slide the cookies behind her back.  With all of the courage we could muster in the face of extreme awkwardness, we sang our songs, shouted out an apologetic “Merry Christmas,” and trotted next door.

That one still makes me cringe.  I believe we owe a certain family in Perry an enormous plate of cookies.  If anyone has any information that would help me locate that family, please send it my way.

But the reactions to our caroling didn’t end there.  We experienced clapping, smiling, dancing, giggling, and even crying.  And countless expressions of gratitude.  At some point in the evening - often despite ourselves - our hearts would be moved by someone’s reaction and we would feel something more than just cold.  It was then that I would understand on some level why Mom insisted we go, why she didn’t give in to our pleading to just let us stay home eating all the cookies.

That was over twenty years ago.  I know exactly how my two teenagers will react when they see the cookies I bake on or around Christmas Eve this year.  Caroling is so last century, they will explain. And they will most definitely roll their eyes when I ask about names for the caroling list. 

But I will remain resolute.  Because I remember how I felt when I went caroling as a kid, as a teenager even, and will insist that everyone - including my protesting teenagers - climb into the car to go caroling.

I am the first to admit that caroling can be a difficult pill to swallow - especially for those who weren’t born into over-the-top caroling families like I was.  But continuing (or beginning) traditions that help us and the people we love feel the holiday spirit is worthy of consideration - even if we have to embarrass the eye-rolling teenagers in the process.