Somewhere in the depths of my memory, there is a perfect Christmas. This is a Christmas that occurred many years ago, when I was a little boy. The anticipation had been building for weeks. My mother had sewn an advent calendar, a felt green wreath adorned with plump little elves and fuzzy reindeer and one very cute and tiny baby Jesus nestled in the manger. Each day we added a character to the wreath. The night before the big day I had gone to sleep, my worn copy of Mauri Kunnas’ Santa Claus and His Elves in my arms.
Our Christmas tree was modest, not too big, not too small. It stood before the windows overlooking the harbor in the town where we lived, the orange sun rising up behind it. I can still see the stacks of modest toys before me, maybe a bicycle, maybe a record player, maybe a stuffed bear or some toy blocks. I can smell my mother’s cooking in the kitchen. Then the guests showed up, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, hordes of children more or less my age. People sat around talking to each other. They ate a hot meal of turkey and cranberry sauce and a dessert of pumpkin pie. Then, after a few more gifts, all wrapped up in colorful paper covered with images of sleighs and snowmen, they went home, and we all cuddled up beside a warm fire in pleasant silence. It was nice.
Our Christmases back home in New York are less ideal these days. When the cousins arrive they typically make straight for the big flat screen TV on the wall to watch the game or spend the evening texting their friends on their iPhones. I don’t have much to say to family members since I only see them at these big events, though it is still good to see them. The trees have grown larger in size, the gift giving more lavish, the meals grander. Our girls get so many presents, I can’t remember who gave what. When all the guests leave on Christmas in New York, I don’t feel cozy, I feel exhausted, glad that the day is over. I have simply lost my spirit of Christmas. I struggle just to remember what it might have been like.
Which makes the fact that we can celebrate Christmas in Estonia this year a very big opportunity. Here, I’m an immigrant, which means that I can start anew, try to recreate that ancient perfect Christmas, the one that still lurks in my mind, try to rekindle my enthusiasm for the season. But it’s not easy, because Estonia isn’t that different from America anymore. Just today I waded among the tacky plastic decorations on display at the local supermarket while Frank Sinatra sang “Happy Holidays” above. I might as well be in America. And the hypnotic pull of consumerism is even stronger here. Estonians it seems go even more bananas at Christmas time than they do on Saint John’s Day. Armies of buyers enticed by the word “sale” descend on shopping centers, eager to snatch up all the junk they can before someone else does.
Now that I have my own children, I also feel pressure to put on a good show for them. The gifts must be different, special, memorable, and yet I always walk away from Christmas regretting that I wasted so much money on things they hardly use. Last year in a pitch of pre-Christmas fever I bought my younger daughter an expensive glockenspiel from a music shop. “Don’t you think it’s too good for a three year old?” I told the grinning seller, who laughed and patted me on the back and said, “Sure, but, just think, she can play it when she grows up too!” It made perfect sense to me at the time. So I bought that. And I bought them skis, even though it seems that neither of them have any interest in the sport (and haven’t shown any since), and I bought and bought and bought, and still the spirit of Christmas eluded me.
Food is another challenge. I enjoy the overload of gingerbread that comes my way at Christmas time, the hot hõõgvein, the elves’ morning deposits of chocolate in my children’s slippers, but I have not yet accepted the Estonian Christmas kitchen with all of my heart. There is nothing appealing about blood sausage to me, it doesn’t really taste so great, it doesn’t look so great, and, there’s always the minor detail that it is filled with blood, but, I still manage to scarf down one or two during the holiday season. sauerkraut, fine, potatoes, fine. I’ll even go light candles at Julius Kuperjanov’s grave. Terrific. It doesn’t make me nostalgic though, because it’s all rather new. Even though I can enjoy an Estonian Christmas, it still doesn’t make me an Estonian.
But I am not giving up. I am determined to do Christmas right this year. No matter what it takes. Maybe it’s the right balance of gifts and family fun, I am searching for.Maybe I can tolerate a gentle helping of Frank Sinatra Christmas Carols bought on sale at the local supermarket, without falling for all the plastic crap I have to close my eyes to avoid. Maybe it is possible to control Christmas rather than have it control me.
I think what I am really yearning for when I think of my childhood Christmases is moderation. Just enough gingerbread, just enough decorations, just enough company, just enough gifts … and a tree that’s not to big and not too small.