You may have heard the expression “it is the thought that counts”.
That’s what our holiday series is about this month, because this is the season for a number of holiday traditions and the complicated feelings that come with them, even if you don’t celebrate anything in particular.
We appreciate all of that with some personal essays from the KUOW crew.
In our fourth article, now-supervising Seattle producer Caroline Chamberlain-Gomez takes us back to her family’s favorite holiday celebration—or, as she calls it, her family’s “labour-exploitation scheme for Christmas decorating.”
Every year, my grandparents would host a Christmas tree decorating party. My parents, three sisters and I went to Grandpa Richard and Grandma Jill’s house and decorated their tree. This used to be a holiday tradition, and just like the best holiday traditions, it always started the same way.
We would go to their house late in the morning, greeted by the sound of the same Christmas record they always played.
We’d indulge in the refreshments Grandma Gail offered us: soda, pickled herring, and thin crust pizza from Domino’s.
There will be a bare tree in the living room, towering over boxes of tinsel, waiting for a crew of young decorators to turn it into a festive holiday tree.
But the most visible part of this tradition was neither teamwork nor the tree; It was the feeling of dread that accompanied him.
Because this party wasn’t really a party.
It was a trap for Christmas decoration.
My sisters and I weren’t there to have grandchildren. We were workers. Domino’s was our wages and that tree was our official duty. We had to trim that tree under Grandpa Richard’s watchful eye. And if we stray from the task, Grandpa Richard will put us in line.
I can still hear him now, roaring with Scandinavian rage.
When one of us took an unauthorized break, he’d yell, “TRIM!” I never understood the urgency, but I complied.
This has been going on for years, and my sisters and I have always hated going. As we got older and went to college, we found ways to get out of it. My older sister and I were using our winter break schedule as an excuse. This worked for a while. But there are four of us. With sister number three, my grandmother was upon us.
And Jill, the ruthless Scorpio, doesn’t play around.
In the labor exploitation scheme for Christmas decorating, my grandfather was the demanding floor manager, and grandmother Gail, the executor.
And she was with us.
One year, she called her sister number three. Hold on. Grandma asked how she was doing and, as usual, invited her to the party
Number three sister, she said: “You know, I’m not really sure if I can go. You know, I have a few things going on. I have to check my finals schedule.”
“Well, I already called your school,” Grandma Gail said with a smirk.
Sister Number Three’s jaw dropped.
“I know when the break begins and ends,” Grandma Gail said confidently. “You will be able to make it happen.”
Much has changed since then.
Years passed. My father is divorced. Grandma Gail is no longer with us, and neither is the tree decorating party.
For me and my sisters, we are still looking for ways to get things out. And while I don’t condone my grandparents’ tactics, I think they meant well.
I think my grandfather thought he was preparing us for the real world. I very likely owe my career in journalism to his efficiency and respect for tight deadlines. And I think my grandmother just wanted to spend time together, which is a feeling I understand very well now that she’s gone.
I’ve slowly formed new Christmas traditions, which mostly involve re-watching all of my favorite Christmas movies.
But every year, when I decorate my tree, I still think of them and that party.
I hope I can figure out — in my own way that doesn’t involve barking commands or calling the University of Puget Sound front office — a way to show those I love that I’ll do whatever it takes to spend time with them.