Christmas: then vs now


For me and my large Greek/Italian/Polish family, Christmas is the ultimate family gathering. The older cousins return from their college towns, and the oldest even scheduled her residency hours around our family parties. My mother, aunts and grandmother spend weeks discussing food, who has who in the Secret Santa and, of course, what to get Grandpa Ed (who has everything). I’ve spent my life watching my mother bake seemingly a million cookies, decorating trees with my sister and have even been deemed the family gift wrapper. Yet, Christmas as I remember it ten years ago and Christmas today are very, very different.

    When I was little, the magic of Christmas was too much for me to handle. The holiday began mid-November and didn’t really end until February (taking down our tree made my mom and I too sad). My father’s main job was to set up our trees, wreaths, garland and lights— a task he still achieves with the help of a 12-foot ladder amid his fear of heights. My sister, mom and I were then left to decorate the rest, carefully and thoughtfully placing each ornament, snowglobe and sconce throughout the house. Together, the four of us would deck the halls together and prepare for a month of family, food and presents.

    Grandma Joan’s house was always filled on Christmas Eve. After attending mass, our family would congregate at her house, ladies heading straight for the kitchen, guys checking the latest basketball score and cousins scattering around. We not-so patiently awaited for Grandma’s roast to be done, and may or may not have snuck a few of my mom’s cookies down the basement. Once everyone was full on mashed potatoes or pasta, it was present time. Each cousin had their own stocking from the grandparents, carefully laid out and filled with whatever spoke to Grandma. We stayed late into the night, before heading home to await good ol’ St. Nick.

    My sister and I left out the prettiest cookies for Santa and carrots for his reindeer, before heading upstairs for Christmas Eve sleepovers minus the sleep, too excited for the following morning. Upon waking, we’d bound down the steps and jump on our parents bed, two little girls full of Christmas cheer. What followed was a hurricane of bows, wrapping paper and boxes, highlighted by my father’s unsuccessful attempt to contain the destruction. Lexi and I didn’t mess around when it came to opening gifts—we were usually done in 15 minutes, tops, and passed out together among the mess of paper. My all-time favorite gift was an automated golden retriever called Max, as a puppy was the only item on my list that year. I guess my parents followed through, in a non-traditional sense. Year after year, Christmas was what little Athena counted down to and anticipated whenever mom would say, “Ask Santa for it.”

    Yet, as a 17-year-old, the enchantment of Christmas, while still there, has changed quite a bit. Not everyone can come home for Grandma’s Christmas Eve party. My father, an emergency room doctor, has had to work the past few Christmas Eves and Days, my eldest cousins have gotten stuck at work and medical school, my baby cousin is entering his teenage years and we’ve even lost a few members of the Markowski clan. My exams occur in the midst of the countdown to Christmas, leaving me with a week of anxiety and stress before I can even think of being merry or bright. Seven-year-old Athena would be quite disappointed in my current priorities.

    But even though the family has grown up and the holiday has changed, our love for each other and the meaning of Christmas has not strayed. My 27 and 22 year-old cousins both threw fits when Grandma took away their stockings, claiming they were “too old” for them. Secretly, she loved the fact that they held onto the tradition, and now they both receive one when they come home. My mom, sister and I have made a pact to wait for my dad to return home from work before opening a single present, not wanting to experience the joy of giving and receiving without him. And even though we’ve lost some, we’ve gained just as much, building the long-lineage of Christmas-loving Markowski’s.

    With so much changing, I cherish this time of year. To me, Christmas is a time of family, laughter and celebration (and great food, of course). Even though much of the joyful innocence of the holiday has vanished, the real meaning is more apparent than ever—to surround yourself with loved ones, and celebrate kindness through giving. While there’s no fake dog or an uncle dressed up as Santa, the spirit of Christmas is still felt by my grown family. Maybe being a young adult at Christmas isn’t all too bad.