When I think of the holidays, stress hits me like a Christmas tree to the face. For me, this is “the most worrisome time of the year,” and I’m pretty sure it’s been this way since I was a baby.
While I don’t remember my first Christmas (I mean, I was barely pushing 6 months), there is a photo I reference from time to time. It’s timestamped December 24th, 1987, and you can see my dad holding me as I’m wrapped up in a white gown with red ribbons. I’m surrounded by my cousins, aunts, and uncles, who are all cheesing at the camera and standing in front of a brightly lit tree. Then there’s my mom with a manic look in her eyes. Her face is dropped, her arms are stretched out, and she’s panic-stricken. But it’s too late. Kodak’s automatic function has failed her. The perfect shot is gone. This photographic flaw immortalized in my family photo albums (against my mother’s will, of course) perfectly captures what the holidays are and always will be for my family: anything but perfect.
But instead of embracing and accepting this failure, my mom fought it.
Armed with gold ribbons, string lights, and the best Christmas tree in town, nothing would stop my mom from finally getting that picture-perfect white Christmas that rivaled our neighbor: Martha Stewart.
In Christmas 2004, my mother directs from the bottom of a ladder as I attempt to straighten the angel on top of the meticulously decorated tree. “She’s off-balance,” she exclaims. Every golden ribbon bow had to be straight, the lights had to be wrapped and spaced apart just right, and the stockings had to be hung by the chimney with way too much care.
“Don’t hit any bulbs!” my mother demanded. Since I could climb a ladder, this was a can’t-miss Christmas photo opportunity. While some kids posed with Santa, I posed with a ladder, my petite mother, and a tree. And the older I got the, more I resented it. But one year, I had enough. I pouted and rolled my eyes, annoyed by this unnecessary tradition. After all, she always fixed the angel after taking the photo.
“I have to go,” I scoffed.
“You ungrateful little brat!” my mom bit back.
“Takes one to know one!” Even though I knew I crossed a line, I was on a mission. I was late for my first date with the guy who would soon become my high school sweetheart, Will*. His IM invite to rescue me from my parents’ place hours away from Christmas Eve automatically made him my knight in shining popped polo shirt. But instead of rescuing me from a dragon, he was saving me from a different fire-breather: my mother. Frankly, her obsession over the naivety scene, antipasti platter, and already-fused-over Christmas tree was driving me insane.
Fast-forward to three days before Christmas in 2017, and we’re in the parking lot of The World’s Largest Dairy Store: Stew Leonard’s in Norwalk, Connecticut. But instead of sampling cheese, we’re looking at Christmas trees, and once again, my mother is on a mission to find the perfect one. However, my face grows redder than the nearby poinsettias with every Douglas fir or eastern white pine my mother insists an employee cut open for us. I don’t understand. They all look the same to me.
When Christmas Eve rolled around, we got into another screaming match. I was attempting to make linguine and clams for the first time ever. Because we’re Italian, we always attempted to make the feast of the “seven fishes,” but just stop at one fish. That year, I overcooked the clams, which made them a little chewy, but according to my mother I “ruined Christmas.”
This last Christmas, we moved out of my childhood home. My parents decided to downsize from a three-story house to a one-bedroom apartment. I began to realize that my parents were living beyond their means every Christmas, since my first Christmas, in an attempt to show me the perfect childhood which neither of them had.
This time, there is no budget, no tree, no presents, or stockings hung with too much care. There are just boxes and piles of all our presents from Christmas past: All of the beanie babies that now have no value, chunky chained Tiffany jewelry, enough designer shoes and handbags to style a small country. I’m now starting to see these “presents” for what they really are—and they’re just stuff.
What survived the downsize was the only thing that really mattered. It’s what people save first when their house is on fire: photos.
The photo from my first Christmas of my mom vs the automatic camera; the many, many photos of me frowning with my mom by a Christmas tree; linguine with clams that ruined Christmas of 2017. And instead of looking back at these less-than-picture-perfect memories with anger, I’m laughing.
Last Christmas there was no screaming match. Maybe that’s because, for the first time since my first Christmas, there was no tree. It’s just me, my mom, my dad, and the traditions that actually matter: All of us trekking to the only Italian deli in Southern Connecticut to get cheeses, cured meats and marinated vegetables for our DIY antipasto platter; blasting Gloria Estefan’s bizarre rendition of “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” on loop; and pretending we’re going to make it to midnight mass, but knowing we never do.
Since our first Christmas, we’re programmed to believe the holidays are about presents, decorations, and spending money—and all of that translates to one thing: stress. But when you strip away the material things from the holidays, you’re left with tradition, which is really what the holidays are about. The second I started embracing the tradition that the holidays in the Conti home never have been and never will be picture-perfect, was the moment Christmas stopped stressing me out. And if you can, hug your parents tightly and tell them that you love them because you just never know how many Christmases they have left.