It’s been too hot. Too rainy. Makes me want to talk about Christmas. My childhood Christmases were spent in Florida, so no snowy memories. But I crave that time of the year. As a kid, it didn’t bring much joy. No holiday should, really. Your joy should come from inside you, not from a single boxed date on the calendar. But philosophy aside, it wasn’t great. I loved the decorations, the smell of the Christmas tree. The ornaments clunking together between soft ripped pieces of tissue that we saved year after year. The Christmas books would come out, and we’d read Socks for Supper all over again. I decorated my own room and made my own Christmas cards for years. My sisters and I, besides our regularly sized stockings, had miniature stockings taped to our bedroom doors. We bought tiny pieces of candy and cut up stickers for each other. We’d take turns, oldest first, filling our sisters’ stockings with these small things, the recipients, anticipating with bedroom doors closed what goodies the faint rustling sounds on the other side of the door would bring. We’d never open the stockings together, though. Our strange ritual was nearly choreographed. The youngest would signal that the last stocking was full, and we’d all open our doors, peel the tiny bulging stockings from our doors, and dump them out on our respective beds, ooh-ing at the contents and thanking the others in raised voices that would carry to the adjacent bedrooms.

Our Christmases, in many ways, mirrored others all over the world, I’m sure. Our family was always blessed with plenty of food, a couple of fruit cakes that we didn’t want, and the electric train zipping around the base of the tree through tunnels of presents, piles of which bulged out from under the tree. I don’t think, however, that anyone else’s Christmas specifically included the “Beware of the A.A.M. at A.M.” I had scrawled in the December 25th box of my calendar every year after about age eleven. “Beware of the A.A.M. at A.M.” is decoded this way: “Beware of the Annual Abominable Mom in the morning.” It was my humorous way of dealing with the inevitable on my otherwise favorite holiday.

Christmas mornings began with shouting before we ever got out of bed. Every year, something my Dad did or didn’t do didn’t meet up with my mom’s expectations of what a lovely Christmas morning or breakfast should entail. And it was always my Dad’s fault. We were all in for it, really. In truth, there was no crime. Nothing truly forgotten. No one wronged. The problem was my mom’s, what I realized were years later, overblown expectations and her severe pressure on my Dad to not step wrong. This combusted into shouting, refrigerator doors slamming, broken dishes, whined excuses from my dad, the garage door slamming, and my mom’s Mercedes gunned, backed out of the driveway and roaring down the street. Most of the time she stayed. We quietly did our tiny stocking ritual in the aftermath of the explosion we ducked every year, reclaiming our morning.

We even had our own Christmas in the hallway that our three bedrooms flanked. After the breakfast my parents inevitably fought over, we’d sit in front of the plastic tree which itself was not more than two feet tall and sat atop all twelve volumes of the children’s Bible that I had stacked and wrapped in a red blanket for its base. Underneath the tree wrapped in tiny packages for each other were all of our hopes for a Christmas we could control. One we wished for. One with laughs. Anticipation. Surprise. Good humor. And most of all, peace. Which meant my parents didn’t meddle. So we had our own Christmas first, before the one we shared with our parents. We exchanged small gifts like barrettes and candy bars. They didn’t bother us. I’m assuming they chalked it up to another one of our bizarre rituals as girls, but it was our own cloistered, microcosmic Christmas that never disappointed us.

Inside a family that downright scared us and left us starved for love and peace, we made a smaller, safer one for ourselves. Three people had learned to care for each other without a model of how to do it and we miniaturized what we knew we couldn’t have the full version of. We tasted it together, in secret, in a hallway away from our parents. That was the kind of grace we experienced in our shared childhood. Somehow we pulled off, and every December 25th, among caroling and candlelight services at church, stacked presents, and decorations throughout the house, we blocked out the fighting and the slamming doors and the punishments with surprising calm and even humor.

One year, Leah, the youngest, manufactured a tree-topper for our small tree out of a piece of white computer paper bent around itself into a cone to make the angel’s body.  She cut it short to fit the tiny spike of metal and rumpled plastic “pine needles” that formed top of the tree. On it, she simply taped a cutout of her face that she’d carefully scored from a photograph. No arms, no beautiful dress–just a silly Italian face on a cone of paper crammed on the top of our tree with laughter. It haunted us years after. It always reappeared on top of the tree, always a joke, always one of our favorite parts of our Christmas. It was a lot like our sense of things back then, too. Family was makeshift, pieced together with tape from found objects, found opportunities, tiny air pockets of grace, moments between the rages, and laughs behind closed doors. Christmas meant that we came together and were lucky in spite. And we knew it even then.

It was real.