I don’t remember much about childhood Christmases in our Cincinnati suburban home—my parents hosted an open house on Christmas Eve and I have vague memories of being fussed over by various neighbors and family friends and I remember my delight at dollhouses and dolls with wardrobes made by my mother . There’s one ridiculous picture of me and the 2 next door neighbor kids—I’m in a nurse’s hat and cape and they are both in cowboy costumes, posing on the wintry front lawn.
When I was 12 we moved to a nearby town and ended the tradition of the Christmas Eve open house. My sister was married by then and she and her husband had not yet returned to his home in England. On Christmas Eve, everyone gathered for a quick and simple supper with Christmas cookies for dessert—I particularly liked the butterscotch brownies—and then decorated the tree. Later we’d go to church for a carol service. When we returned home, my sister and I would fill the stockings and put all the presents under the tree. Christmas day began with Sara Lee coffee cake and present opening, then a long boring stretch of doing not much of anything before preparations began for Christmas dinner, which always had the same menu—shrimp cocktail for starters, some kind of roast and Yorkshire pudding and green beans and roast potatoes, plum pudding for dessert made from the recipe my sister found in the Cincinnati newspaper that she swore made a better pudding than any English recipe.
For years as an adult, I flew back to Cincinnati for Christmas. In the 10 years after my dad died, it was often just me and my mom, although sometimes my cousin and his wife were around or my sister and brother-in-law would fly back from England for the holiday. The routines surrounding the holiday got pared down but I always got a tree and decorated it and displayed a few of mom’s favorite Christmas candles. And I made plum pudding.
After my mom died, I became a Christmas vagabond—one year I flew to Chicago with a friend to spend the holiday with her sister’s family. Some years I made the trip to England; others I stayed home and cobbled together a celebration with friends, often being the only non-family member at their family gatherings. Six years ago my brother-in-law died and since then my sister and I make a point of being together at Christmas, sometimes in the US, sometimes at her home in England.
Over the years, I’ve established traditions of my own. I usually put up a tree (or if I’m heading for England I might simply put lights on one of my larger houseplants). I buy poinsettias and cyclamen and cut evergreen boughs for the mantle. If my sister is coming here, I make plum pudding. When I have a tree, I use the family ornaments I brought from my mother’s house.
But somehow, no matter much I decorate, or play Christmas music, and no matter how sweet my time with friends or with my sister, I feel a little homesick, like I’m visiting Christmas and missing home.