My family moved around a lot when I was growing up (my dad worked for IBM, aka I’ve Been Moved). So every few years, we celebrated the holidays in a different place. My mom was good about keeping up traditions so that Christmas was Christmas, no matter where we lived. Sometime after Thanksgiving, she’d pillage packing boxes marked “Xmas Stuff;” and once she got going, there was no stopping her. The scent of evergreen permeated the house as she wrapped boughs of it tied with red bows up and down the banisters. Other decorations crowded table-tops, bookcases, mantles, and the piano. Mom’s mix was eclectic: an elaborate nativity set from Italy, trees made from tuna cans, sculptural metal angels, and paper-mache snowmen. No surface remained free of holiday cheer.
But before any counting down of days ‘til Christmas could commence, we had to do two things: (1) Bake my great-grandmother’s shortbread cookies (that had at least 150 ingredients and all had to be iced in appropriate colors), and (2) Get a real tree. The cookie part was almost easy compared to the tree trip. Mom had to bundle up three kids in enough layers to nearly render us immobile then we’d pack into the station wagon, bound for the nearest lot. My dad would grab the first tree he saw and ask, “How’s this?” A half hour and two dozen trees later, my mother would nod and say, “That’s it!” She always liked the biggest, fattest balsam that took eons for them to tie up. Once home, Dad stuck the tree in a bucket and prayed the water didn’t freeze overnight. The next day, he’d stuff it into the stand and put the lights on, and Mom would spread the skirt beneath. Ta-da! Let the tree-trimming begin!
Hanging the ornaments was a huge honkin’ deal. My mother made sure the whole family was present before she put out eggnog and placed a holiday album on the stereo. While my sibs and I unearthed equal parts hand-made doo-dads and delicate glass baubles from the tissue stuffed cavities of cardboard boxes, Nat King Cole crooned of chestnuts roasting on an open fire. I loved glass birds with clips for claws so I could stick them on the ends of branches, like they’d flown in and were just resting. I adored silver orbs that reflected every color in the rainbow. But one pair of ornaments remained the most special for years: a burlap man and woman my sister and I had named “Speed” and “Trixie,” after the characters in Speed Racer. Every Christmas, their ink faces rubbed off a little more and their yarn hair disappeared, but Molly and I couldn’t wait to place them on the tree next to one another so they could chat about Spanky and Racer X.
Once the ornaments were up, it was tinsel time! We were tinsel-flinging fools back then. Despite Mom’s instructions to put it on one piece at a time—“like a dripping icicle”—we’d toss fistfuls at the higher branches and see what would stick. By the time we’d finished, our tree looked gaudier than a Vegas showgirl.
We had our big family dinner on Christmas Eve. The menu echoed our Thanksgiving meal: turkey, spiral ham, green bean casserole, corn casserole, cranberry mold, and fat black olives that my sister plucked off the garnish tray and stuck on each fingertip. After dinner, we opened one present from a far-away relative before we put on our coats to attend Christmas Eve service. I loved to warble with the choir on “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and sit in silent awe as the star vocalist belted out “Ave Maria” and “Oh, Holy Night.” Once home and sleepy, we’d set out cookies and milk for Santa, glance at our empty stockings, and head up to bed. Before I nodded off, I’d listen for reindeer on the rooftop (I swear, one night, I heard them!). At the crack of dawn, I’d awaken and fling on my quilted robe as the rest of the house slowly roused. My dad would bark a reminder not to go downstairs until he had his camera ready.
While Dad played Spielberg and Mom sipped coffee, my siblings and I tore through whatever Santa had brought, usually something like Tonka trucks, games, and trains for Jimmy; stilts, a slide-making kit, and a baseball mitt for Molly; a rock tumbler, dolls, and books for me. Always books. My favorite part of Christmas, once the chaos had ended (and it was always over quickly), was curling up somewhere quiet with Nancy Drew, Black Beauty, or Laura Ingalls Wilder. Bliss!
Much about the holidays has changed since my childhood as my husband and I strive to keep life—and Christmas—simple. We don’t go heavy on decorations and never get the biggest tree in the lot. I don’t bake shortbread cookies with 150 ingredients, and I’m not much for turkey. But, as long as I have a pulse, two things will never change: the pleasure of being with family and the joy of un-wrapping a book. Honestly, was there ever a better gift?
Any favorite Christmas memories you'd like to share?
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