Judging from the snow in the street and the Muzak at work, it’s Christmas time. What am I supposed to do – put up a Christmas tree, just for me and the cat? I don’t think so.
We don’t have children, so half the allure of the holidays was never in play for Steph and I. But even before Stephanie came into my life, Christmas was never terribly important to me, at least not after I’d grown up.
I don’t particularly like Christmas. There, I said it. Beginning in my late 20s, I started withdrawing from Christmas, and by the time Stephanie entered my life, I hadn’t done anything Christmassy for seven or eight years. Mailed no cards. Strung no lights. Wrapped no gifts. And this will not be “a very special episode” of stephmemorial.com; unlike every book and movie where someone says “Bah, humbug,” I will not have a change of heart and become Mr “Merry Christmas” and “God bless Us, Every One!”
In this story, the Christmas miracle comes at the beginning, and unravels at the end. Falling in love with Stephanie brought Christmas back into my world; that was the miracle, and it was wonderful. She wasn’t jolly old St Nicholas by any means – even Steph didn’t do full-fledged Christmas like some folks do. But she wasn’t on strike from the Christmas spirit, like I was. She kinda liked Christmas, and she taught me to kinda like it, too.
Before meeting her, my only Christmas tradition was to go to a movie, at a theater. Alone. I might as well have worn a t-shirt that said, “Cranky old man.” My Christmas movie was never even a movie about Christmas – never Elf or Bad Santa – it was just seeing a movie, on Christmas. In other words, playing hooky from ordinary Christmas, and having fun instead. So for our first Christmas together, I took Stephanie to a Jackie Chan double feature at the UC in Berkeley. We had popcorn and snuck in Milk Duds, and it was a very merry Doug-style Christmas.
When the movies were over, though, we spent our first Christmas together in a rez hotel in San Francisco. That was our home. There was no tree, no wreath, nobody to say “Merry Christmas” to us and nobody we said it to, except each other. But we’d purchased a single string of lightweight, colorful lights and strung them across the ceiling in our bedroom.
“After I’ve taken off my glasses,” Steph said, “I’m lying here in bed and all I can see is the twinkles on the ceiling, out of focus and ethereal. It’s a little bit beautiful!” And indeed, it was a lovely effect, when the mood wasn’t ruined by drunks screaming at each other in the next room. So we didn’t do it every Christmas, but a string of lights on the ceiling became a recurring motif.
For a few years we were treeless, mostly because – where are you going to put a tree, in a tiny San Francisco apartment? We bought a very small tabletop Noble Fir one year, and we were still stepping on needles six months later, so the new rule was: no real trees for Christmas. By the next year, we’d moved to Kansas City and a much bigger apartment, so we purchased a full-sized fake tree at the Walgreens on 39th Street. After a few years, though, even the fake tree started shedding its fake needles, so we bought a miniature fake Christmas tree at a garage sale.
After the apartment was decorated for the holidays, we would share a platter of Stephanie’s ham roll-ups. That was another Christmas tradition. She had found the recipe on one of her recipe-hunts at the Milk Marketing Board, then modified and simplified it until it was the easiest dish in Steph’s repertoire. I made it a few times myself, and never screwed it up; that’s how easy it is. There are only two ingredients, and no cooking.
Pre-sliced sandwich ham
Let the cream cheese sit outside the fridge for a few hours, which makes it soft and easy to spread. Lay out the ham slices on a tray. Spread a thin layer of cream cheese on each ham slice. “Roll up” the ham slices, so you get long tubes of ham and cream cheese. Cut each tube into bite-sized morsels of deliciousness. Steph would put the ham roll-ups into the refrigerator for an hour or so, which made them tastier, but I would sometimes eat a handful or three without that fridge time, and they were almost as good.
Helpful hint for ham roll-ups: Don’t buy deli ham, the stuff that’s thin-sliced and packaged however the meat falls from the slicer. Lunchmeat ham is what you want – pre-sliced, like a loaf of bread.
Another helpful hint: Always make more ham roll-ups than you think you’ll need, because Doug will eat most of them, and there won’t be any leftovers.
We traded small gifts for Christmas, because small gifts were all we could afford. Steph sent cards to all her family, and gifts to her parents and her brother, and I added “and Doug” to her signature on the cards. Always there were twinkling lights, hung on the tree, or the door, the window, or the ceiling.
It’s a challenge to give your spouse the “perfect gift” for Christmas, and then give the “perfect gift” for Christmas the next year, and the year after that, so after trading less-than-perfect gifts for a few Christmases, Steph had a great idea. “Why don’t we give a Christmas present to ourselves, instead of to each other? That way we’ll always get exactly what we want for Christmas.” So around November every year, we’d talk about what our household needed that could make our lives better, and whatever we agreed became our Christmas gift to ourselves.
Our first Christmas gift for ourselves was a set of cookware, to replace our old pots and pans, and it’s been 14 or 15 years but that Christmas cookware is still our cookware. One year, we gave and received a DVD player. Another year we wanted and got a bigger and better TV. One Christmas there were mp3-players for each of us, and another year we bought wi-fi and a Roku, so we could throw files and videos from our computers onto the television. One year, we gave ourselves a weekend at the Fairy Tale Palace.
Two Christmases ago, we gave ourselves a Dutch oven – an oversized cast-iron pot that can go into the oven or onto the stovetop. Stephanie had always wanted a Dutch oven, so was it more a gift for her than for me? Yeah, it was, but I got the joy of seeing her face light up, not just when we bought it, but every time she used it. And I got to eat the stews and casseroles she made in it.
Last year, our Christmas gift to ourselves was a subscription to The New Yorker. With all of Stephanie’s medical appointments, we felt like we’d spent a month of our lives in medical waiting rooms, reading whatever magazines they had. Many clinics have magazines we’d never want to read – Golf Digest and People and Time and myriad medical journals – and good grief, who wants to read Arthritis Today or Diabetic Living at all, let alone read those magazines just before seeing a doctor? We kept noticing, though, that if The New Yorker was in the waiting room, we both wanted to read it, and we could never finish it before seeing the doctor. So, we subscribed. Merry Christmas to us!
Always there were stockings to be stuffed. That was another tradition from our first Christmas together, when Steph surprised me on Christmas morning with a few candies and trinkets stuffed into (clean) socks. After that, every year, there were stockings overfilled with stuff – candy bars, exotic treats, mini-bottles of whiskey, etc. Some years Steph bought the stocking-stuffers, some years I did, and sometimes Santa supplied them.
We decorated the apartment together, and then we’d eat ham roll-ups while Steph would point out the glaring bald spots on the tree, and we’d make minor or major repairs. There are several boxes of Christmas decorations in the storage space downstairs, though we rarely used more than a fraction of them for any given Christmas.
After several years of carefully putting away the decorations and disassembling the tree, I had the bright idea of putting the entire tree in a closet, fully assembled and fully decorated, so next Christmas the job of decorating really just meant carrying the tree up from the closet to a corner of the living room.
The tree is still in that closet. I have no desire to see twinkling lights.
Before Steph came along, I didn’t care about Christmas. She made Christmas worth celebrating, and I’m glad and grateful that she did. Christmas itself was the best Christmas present she could’ve given me, and all those holidays with Stephanie are memories I’ll cherish always.
Now that she’s gone, though, Christmas is over. I have less than zero interest in decorating a tree or hanging lights or stuffing stockings, so I’m skipping Christmas this year. Maybe every year.
More about Stephanie.