So the holidays snuck up on me this year and although I was prepared to be prepared I was still side-swiped. I decided just before Thanksgiving that I would make my American nieces and my daughters scarves for Christmas (7 girls in total). It didn’t seem to make sense to make all my NZ nieces scarves since they are in the middle of summer. This didn’t seem like too big of a task since I figured out a really easy and quick pattern that came out really cool. I started crocheting and had them all done in just over a week. That was along with all my other mothering and wifeing duties too so it really didn’t take that long to complete each scarf.
Then Kaitlyn asked if I would make a scarf for her teacher for Christmas. Now I don’t really remember back to my childhood very well but I don’t remember giving Christmas presents to my teachers on a regular basis. I’m sure my mother would have done the proper thing and I vaguely remember her putting a cake of chocolate in the letterbox for the postman on occasion.
I have learnt over the years that Americans really like a good celebration and they are pretty much into celebrating anything. As you move through your year you have to keep up or else you’ll get behind. You start the year with your Christmas decorations still up and then move into Valentines Day, from there its St Patricks followed by Easter or Spring (they can be switched depending when Easter falls for that year), then you have Memorial Day and 4th of July. There’s mother’s and father’s days in there somewhere and then you’re through summer and its on to harvest, or Halloween if you are so inclined, then harvest/thanksgiving again then you’re back to Christmas. Forgive me if I missed any, I’m still new to this.
Basically you can go all out or keep it simple. At the very least you have a door wreath for each occasion but you can turn your front yard into a wonderland if you should want to and it would not be out of place.
I am not saying this to be in any way mocking. I actually like it. It’s festive and I like it that people are willing to celebrate things like the changing of the seasons (which you have to admit are fairly uneventful in New Zealand). I have joined in with this festive tradition and already own 3 different wreaths. I have to confess I’m a bit behind this year, already the Valentines Day stuff is out in the shops and I don’t have a wreath for that. My Christmas tree is still standing in my living room slowly turning into a Christmas stick as it dies a slow and horrifying death and in our front yard we have an inflatable snowman, an inflatable penguin, a lighted spiral tree and a lighted deer that unfortunately lost power to its head section so now appears to be decapitated.
Anyway, what I did not know about was the presents. Apparently it is polite and actually expected that you will bestow gifts upon all those who you come in contact with more than once during the year. Well maybe not quite but certainly school teachers, bus drivers, child care providers, cleaners, and the list goes on. I only found out about this phenomenon this holiday season (by the way I don’t say holiday season to be politically correct I say it to encompass all the different holidays that happen all year I am a strong believer in Christmas and its true meaning - it is Jesus’ birthday).
So on 12 February of 2010 which was Emily’s first year in an American preschool I sent her off to school like any other day. Imagine how surprised I was when she came home with a backpack full of loving thoughts from all her classmates. There were cards, stickers, candy, pencils, you name it she had it in there. Then imagine my utter embarrassment when I realised that I had sent her to school empty handed. They had done the traditional Valentines Day swap and she had had nothing to give because her Kiwi mother had no idea that Valentines Day was a day for everybody loving everybody not just couples. I should have been tipped off when I remembered that James’ mum always sent a Valentines Day gift to the girls but I thought she was just being nice, not that it was a whole country thing.
I cried all the way home that day and felt so terrible that I had failed my daughter in her first holiday experience in a new country. We had only just moved to the area and she had only been in that school for a few weeks at the time but still, I was devastated.
I quickly asked what other customs I should look out for and found out that it is polite to send in cupcakes to school on the child’s birthday (not an issue for Emily since her birthday is in the summer) but I did make sure that I baked my heart out that year for Kaitlyn’s birthday. She was enrolled in preschool by the time Emily went to kindergarten (not the same as kindergarten in NZ, don’t even get me started on the school system here!!) and her birthday is during the school year.
I thought I was doing pretty well and as February rolled around I got to work creating homemade cards with red cardboard and lots of glitter and hearts. The girls were delighted and we chose some goodies to put in gift bags and they trotted off to their various classrooms laiden with treats for classmates and teachers alike. We had baked and decorated Valentines elephants for Kaitlyn’s class (as you do) and the more traditional Valentines hearts for Emily’s.
We then moved to a new town before the end of the school year and made it through the summer in our new location. It was then that I found myself back to the Christmas holiday season. It was at that point I realised that I had not given Christmas gifts, or even cards to either of the girls’ school teachers last Christmas. Nor had I given them departing gifts (not sure if that was expected or not).
I decided I must not linger in my shame but rather forge ahead. So it was with these thoughts at the forefront of my poor addled brain when Kaitlyn came at me with her request for a scarf. I quickly answered that of course I would make her teacher a scarf. Emily overheard and put her hand up for one for her teacher too. It was still 3 weeks out from Christmas so I thought I had it under control, I mean how hard could it be? I just finished 6 scarves and 2 hats in just over a week. I went out and purchased the wool in many different colours as prescribed by the experts (the girls) and set about making the scarves. It wasn’t until after I was fully committed to this whole thing that I realised that Kaitlyn doesn’t just have one teacher. She is blessed with 5 of them. They all do an outstanding job and I really couldn’t just make one for the head teacher and not for all of them. I started crocheting faster!!
I also realised that since I was making scarves for adults they had to be somewhat longer than the kids ones. This meant I had to increase them by 50% and that meant it took much longer to make each one. Also one of the wools that had been chosen was very difficult to work with which slowed me down quite a bit. But I forged ahead and hoped against all hope that Kaitlyn was correct in her absolute determination that her teacher’s favourite colour is orange.
We were hosting the family Christmas this year and I had a friend coming to stay from the week before Christmas. Fortunately my friend was able to understand my insanity (having lived with me in our younger days) and was more than happy to sit and read (well study actually since she’s doing a stint as a student) while I frantically crocheted my fingers raw.
James was away for work that week before Christmas and his flight was due to land at 11.28 pm on the Thursday. This was the day before the girls were to take their gifts to school for their teachers. It was after school that day that Emily came home and announced that she did in fact have two teachers not just one. Now she has been in the same class since September and not once has she mentioned a second teacher to me. I knew there were assistant teachers in most, if not all, classrooms but I figured that if this particular person was special to Emily she would have at least mentioned her. Emily looked at me with her big brown eyes and explained that she really needed a scarf for the other teacher. All the feelings of letting down my children on past holidays and causing them to commit social faux pas came flooding over me. I looked into those eyes and told her that it would be ok, I’d figure something out.
Several days before I had started one scarf and got to the last row (the longest one to do) before realising that I was using the wrong wool so I had stopped and put it aside. I realised that I would have to use this discarded almost scarf and finish the final row if I didn’t want to be up all night long. My problem was that I didn’t really have a good colour to go with it and not enough wool to finish it in the same colour. We went through all the colours I had available and finally settled on one that didn’t look completely hideous. It was going to turn out to be one of those colour combos that you either love or hate and I didn’t know this woman at all, I only hope that it didn’t become the laughing stock of her Christmas. The one gift that she held up to her entire extended family with the words “this woman must have been colourblind, can you believe it?”
I started in on it and crocheted solidly until it was time to leave to pick James up. I took it with me and believe me, if I didn’t know it would have been completely dangerous and slightly difficult to explain to the State Trooper I would have crocheted while I drove. When I got to the airport I had James drive and I crocheted all the way home in the car. I walked in the house crocheting and then crocheted some more. I crocheted while James photographed all the other scarves at my request (and then insistence) and I crocheted while he put them all back in the correct gift bags. Then I crocheted just a little bit more and I was done.
The girls took their gifts into school the next day (their last day of school for the year) and apparently the scarves were a big hit and Kaitlyn’s teacher loves the colour orange so much that she almost painted the whole classroom that colour, phew!! Unfortunately I was hosting the family Christmas in only a few days and so far was only a little bit ready.
I packed up the wool and we did our best to get the house looking half way decent and then went shopping. Of course with all this crocheting going on we had failed to complete the last of our Christmas shopping and we were now down to the wire. It wasn’t until Christmas Eve after the service at church that it fully hit me that we didn’t have a single present wrapped.
Let’s just say it was a late night and the kids were ignored when they rose at 1.30 am ready to party and then were ‘strongly encouraged’ at about 3 am to go back to bed and not even think of disturbing our sleep again at the risk of losing limbs. My Christmas spirit had got lost somewhere between midnight and 12.30 when we finally made it to bed.
Now I am wondering about the whole thank you note thing. Americans seem to like sending thank you notes much more than any other nationality I have met. I remember when I was a kid that it was perfectly acceptable to say thank you to the person who gave you a gift right then and there and that seemed to be enough. Over here you need to send a card anyway. I have gotten much better at this but I’m not sure if it applies to Christmas gifts as well as birthdays and things. The problem I have this year is that the opening of the presents happened so fast with the kids that I got all confused and now I can’t remember who gave them what.
I’m sure by now I have managed to deeply offend many people over here. There are probably scores of perfectly lovely people who are wondering why my children didn’t give them a gift. There are probably perfectly lovely people wondering why I didn’t. There are likely to be countless people standing by their letterboxes waiting for my thank you cards and Christmas cards and probably other kinds of cards I don’t know about yet. But I really am doing everything I can to catch up on over thirty years of a different culture. Some things are the same but most are not.
By the way, if you gave me a wedding present there’s probably no hope now of getting a thank you card. I realise that it is very bad manners (in both countries) but it’s just too late. I actually still have the cards and the envelopes and have had them for the last 8 years and I really really appreciate everyone who did give us a gift but I think you should just give up now and go back inside.