What does it take to draw people together at Christmastime?
|My daughter, Abby, and my mom, Janet,|
at Christmas in 2010.
CHRISTMAS EVE OPPOSITES. Childhood Christmases with my extended Hay and Sheffield clans were dramatically different. Christmas Eve would be spent in New Castle, Indiana--home to both family clans. First, my dad, mom, sister, and I would go to Grandpa and Grandma Hay’s for dinner and a gift exchange. Then, we would drive across town to Aunt Willie Mae’s for the Sheffield gathering. The Sheffields--my mother’s side--were warm, affectionate and readily endearing. The Hays--my dad’s side--were guarded, stand-offish and halting in their familial exchanges. I would experience both on the same evening each year.
WISHING THE EVENING WOULD NEVER END. I loved the Sheffield Christmas. There were hugs and laughter and joviality and a great sense of belonging from the moment we walked in Aunt Mae's door. It was like picking up on an engaging, ongoing conversation, no matter how long we had been apart. The Sheffields were easy to be with, even with 40 aunts, uncles, cousins and in-laws crammed into a little house. I remember wishing the Sheffield Christmas evening would never end.
CHRISTMAS-EVE STAND-OFF. As much as I enjoyed the Sheffield Christmas, I endured the Hay gathering. The Hay event was made all the more awkward by the opposite poles at which different households lived. At one end were the religiously ultra-conservative households. Each year, I would be freshly surprised and relieved that there were people more restrictive than my dad. These reserved folk carried an air of spiritual pride and judgment. The women and girls wore long dresses and no jewelry. These families kept their distance from the Hays who lived at the other end of the spiritual spectrum. Suffice it to say that two of my fifty-ish uncles trafficked marijuana grown in Kentucky up to New Castle and exhibited most common forms of carelessness and irresponsibility. In the middle of this was our bewildered family. All these people crammed into a little house for several hours each Christmas Eve. Awkward!
WRAPPING PAPER MELEE. One year, we realized the terms of endearment. Amid long faces and feigned smiles and strained laughter, my dad wadded up the wrapping paper of the gift he’d just opened and playfully threw it at his alcoholic brother across the room. His brother picked it up and sailed it back. But dad ducked and the wrapping paper wad hit Grandma Hay in the side of the head. She, in turn heaved the wad at another family member. Within minutes, the room was snowing wrapping paper wads. And, along with them, genuine laughter. Heaviness dissipated, suspicion ebbed, judgment was temporarily suspended, and the evening ended in hugs and kind words.
DON’T STOP THE CHAOS. In the years that followed, the evening at Grandma and Grandpa Hay’s would begin with typical awkwardness. There would have been little, if any, contact with each other between Christmases. I would try to figure out the increasingly complex puzzle of who were my real cousins and who was related via divorce, remarriage, cohabitation, etc. But during the gift exchange, the wrapping paper would eventually fly. Even though Grandma Hay may have disliked the melee, she made little attempt to curb the chaos. Perhaps she knew that it was one thing--perhaps the only thing--that this disparate group of people with a common tie to her and Grandpa Hay would ever enjoy together.
GRACE IN A PAPER WAD. I hope it doesn’t take a wrapping-paper-wad battle to bring your household or extended family together--however momentarily. I pray it doesn’t come down to that. But if it does, so be it. I only wish I could have followed up that evening with some more frequent contact with my Hay relatives. That little opening, that endearing moment, might have led to real relationship, might have led to understanding, might have provided an opening to a future of grace. Grandma and Grandpa Hay are gone and the Hays no longer gather as family at Christmas. It’s been years since I’ve seen any of them. And yet I pray that, somehow, those moments of delightful Hay melee will not be completely lost for the grace they conveyed.
John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA