Every year, right after Thanksgiving, I start listening to Luther Vandross' "This is Christmas" album.
The 10-track combination of classic songs like "O Come All Ye Faithful" and the slightly-less-timeless "Mistletoe Jam" calls up every warm and giddy, snow-covered and gingerbread-crusted thing about the holidays for me.
But what, exactly, does "everything about the holidays" mean? I can't tell you. Because if a holiday tradition is something you can count on doing every year, this semi-cheesy, soulful Christmas album is just about the only one I have. I'm tradition-less.
I've listened to "This is Christmas" (a tape, then a CD, now on iTunes) for the past 16 seasons. Nothing else about the holidays has ever been that consistent for me. Not even close.
My one holiday ritual started when I ended up with the album at my hometown's Multiracial Families group's white elephant holiday gift exchange in 1995. Exactly.
At this informal gathering of mostly white moms and their half-black kids (with the exception of the group's organizers, an Italian and Filipino family), after the gifts were exchanged, beige little ones of all ages ate cookies while the adults presumably talked about prejudice or our hair.
It'd be fun to write that that event, where I picked my gift from among all the other under-$20 miscellany, was a staple of my childhood and a touchstone of my childhood holiday memories.
But, not so much.
When it came to the multicultural meet-up, I think my mom and I went all of twice. The year my dad was assigned to take me we had a hard time finding the house, gave up, and went to TGI Fridays in Oakland's Jack London Square instead. My dad said there would be plenty of "multiculturalism."
This was pretty typical of the fleeting holiday routines in my life: I might do the something for a year or two years, and it might even feel like it would stick. But, inevitably, family dynamics, priorities, logistics and living situations changed, and it was on to the next way of celebrating. This was tough for a kid who was really into being -- or at least appearing -- "normal."
I knew I couldn't go back and give myself an easily pronounceable first name or a single last name (both free of punctuation and symbols). I couldn't give myself a single, identifiable race. Or a career I could name for my dad. But I still let myself lust after routines. Ideally, these would resemble what people did on TV, or even better, the average of what "everyone else" did.
I had one friend whose entire family always woke up at 5 AM Christmas morning to exchange gifts, a tradition that persisted years after all the children had grown out of footie pajamas. Another's had an enviably predictable Christmas itinerary involving frittatas, jazz in the background, Lutheran church, and both of her divorced parents under one roof for one day out of the year.
The eight predictable nights of Hannukah intrigued me so much that I once asked my mother if we could become Jewish so I could tap into that. (She didn't exactly say no, but dampened my enthusiasm with the warning that it would involve lots of classes, and eventually a bat-mitzvah, where I'd have to overcome my fear of public speaking to get up in front of a group and recite things.)
But in the end, for me and my mom, the nature of our holiday celebrations was anyone's guess. While vaguely grounded in family and food, little else was consistent.
For a period of time when "cool" cousin Sara was dating a Jamaican artist, Bob Marley played in the background of most holiday events in a sincere but perhaps overzealous attempt at being welcoming. The boyfriend came with a band/entourage, so I remember guys with guitars in our apartment's living room, people sitting on cushions on the floor with their turkey, and a lot of "walks around the neighborhood" where guests came back smelling funny and asking if there was any more pie.
Other years, there were walks on foggy beaches and, once, I think, a picnic on the floor. We volunteered at Glide Memorial church. There was a winter solstice meal combined with psychic readings around the dining table of a woman who lived in our apartment building.
When we lived with another single mom and her kids, we all got the same slippers and stocking stuffers, and I was tickled by the idea that it was as if we were not just housemates, but real siblings.
Our holiday feasts were as unpredictable as the company. One year, the main course was an enormous mound of couscous. In others, my father is known to throw seafood on the grill when he gets into the spirit. When I was 16, my mom decided she needed a signature holiday dish and came up with sweet potato spoon bread. To my younger cousins who've had it for many Christmases, it's a winter essential. To me, it's the weird thing she clipped out of Gourmet magazine.
Gifts, too, are done haphazardly. Once, last-minute logistics found my dad at my mother's family's gathering, handing out scarves and purses that he made no claim to have purchased but said he "acquired" through a "friend in the industry."
Another year, my mom got my aunt a mug that she'd left at our house, beautifully wrapped up and returned. Her gifts to me have often been revealed before Christmas, always with the caveat, "It's not much," even when it is. And when it comes to things like sweater dress treasures unearthed at Ross or Marshall's she can never resist announcing the "COMPARE TO" price before I even have a chance to try them on.
With these unpredictable, unconventional, and inconsistent celebrations, I used to think I was missing out. But, maybe not.
After all, the fact that my favorite holiday album makes me feel giddy versus melancholy says that texture over tradition might not be a losing formula. Maybe it's not a crisis that "This is Christmas" doesn't call up images of a grandmother in an apron or carols around a piano, but rather, happy memories attached to no particular time or place.
Memories like the one year we went to midnight mass because I'd gotten very into being Catholic (basically I wanted to have an answer when people asked what religion I was). My mom sang the hymns and Christmas carols in a ridiculous falsetto and sent me into a trembling laughing fit that we still recall every time we hear Ave Maria.
Say "Christmas lights" and the two of us will laugh, to this day, about the way we used to just about kill each other over joint efforts at manual labor. Those were the years when she going through menopause and I was an obnoxious teenager.
My cousins and aunts still have their gifts from the year my dad showed up and played Santa Claus, and they tell me, whether it's in person or over the phone, "I'm wearing the scarf I got from your father! (Where did he get that stuff, anyway?)"
This Christmas, my mom's coming out from California to go with me to my boyfriend's family's house. What we lack in the tradition department, they have in abundance.
She wants to make her "signature" sweet potato spoon bread. She's bringing a few things for me, but they're "not much." And I'm sure I'll know what they are before Christmas comes. I have every intention of listening to my favorite Christmas album on the drive down. Besides that, this year's celebration will be something completely different, and so for me, totally traditional.