My parents always did a great job of making our Christmases impressive and unforgettable.
Visually, the season for us began for us as we watched and helped our Dad decorate the outside of the house with Christmas lights. Sometimes, he’d get really creative, like when he made his display complete with hi-fi speakers placed outside to play his favorite Christmas music. That was in Texas. After work, he’d sit contentedly on a folding chair in front of the house, right in the midst of his festive creation and exactly between the two stereo speakers, where he’d savor a beer while enjoying the music.
Aside from putting up the outside lights and decorations, there was a whole series of successive events that, for us kids, marked and counted down the days to the anticipated BIG day. We didn’t do them all at once; instead, each occasion became its own special moment.
The day after Thanksgiving, in late November, is when the entire Christmas hubbub started. That was when we’d start bugging Mom about presents we might get from “Santa.” My dad dusted off the Christmas albums and every evening we’d listen to Perry Como and Andy Williams croon the old favorites during dinner. Good stuff that!
I can’t remember when my mother started it, but a neat family tradition came into being involving our little nativity display. My mom and dad acquired it before I can remember. For years, the manger scene included the original wooden structure that came with the ceramic figurines. Eventually, the manger became dilapidated after our many world-wide moves, and my dad, always the do-it-yourself carpenter, made a larger and more elaborate one, which included a beautiful plywood backdrop painted with a Christmas star against a blue-black nighttime Middle-eastern sky. The first day, we put up only the manger. The second, we put out one of the tiny painted figures, maybe a donkey or a sheep. Everyday, we put out another piece, saving the last and most important one, the Christ Child, for Christmas Day.
At least once and sometimes twice, about a week or two from December 25th, we took a family drive through out the nearby neighborhoods, and we’d ooh-and-ah at people’s Christmas displays. Some folks would REALLY do it up big. One thing I’ve noticed—the further south you go in the United States, the more elaborate and gaudy the displays. I think the lack of wintry Christmas weather causes folks down in Dixie to compensate with displays that are really more like showy Christmas spectacles, compared to the simple displays you normally see up north. We certainly didn’t complain—we kids loved every blinking light; gigantic Santa; and life-sized Jesus, Mary and Joseph we saw.
As we got older, and settled in Michigan, we started to include in our countdown ritual the practice of caroling. I wasn’t big on it, but I’d go along on occasion. Usually, we’d pick a night that was deliciously snowy, and we’d go out in two or three cars to people’s homes, but we only sang to people we knew. We didn’t want to risk singing to a bunch of grumpy scrooges; besides, our friends would always invite us in for hot chocolate. I grudgingly admit, there is something to be said for Christmas in cold climes, but for me, those days will REMAIN pleasant memories, thank you very much.
Another custom, especially for me, was making a list of presents for each of my siblings and for my mom and dad. I was never a shopper, I’m still not, so back then I’d get my mom to take me shopping so I could buy each of the gifts on my list all at once. What a relief to get that out of the way. I’m such a "guy" when it comes to shopping. It comes slightly ahead of going to the dentist on my list of preferred activities.
Going out and buying our tree was a huge day on our countdown calendar, usually about two weeks from Christmas. Depending on where we lived, sometimes it consisted of simply going to a lot filled with trucked in, pre-cut trees where we selected the perfect one. However, The BEST way was when we would go to a Christmas tree farm. The very best tree farm memory for me is the time we went to one with my Uncle Mike’s family. It was a cold, snowy day and the farm was filled with beautiful, well-shaped spruces and pines. With our faces splotchy from the frosty air, we examined tree after tree though falling snowflakes, until each of us had found the ideal tree. But no, there was a nicer one further on, and so it went.
Eventually, each family came to a consensus, with, of course, the final decision for each made by the adult men. Then, we brought out the big bow-shaped, red-handled branch trimming saw. The men lay on their sides on the snow and pine needles, and quickly sawed through the doomed tree’s base. We kids pranced and laughed like little druids as we followed behind the dragged carcass of our selected trees, all the way back through the rows of standing trees, back to our cars. Depending on the type of vehicle, we either tied the tree to the top, or placed it diagonally in the trunk, or out the back, if it was a station wagon. Hot chocolate never tasted better then after an afternoon of “slaughtering” Christmas Trees! (grin)
That night, we’d set up the tree on it’s metal stand, that included a bowl for water, carefully ensuring that it stood absolutely vertical, as Dad turned and tightened down the four thumb screws into the tree’s sappy wood. When it was perfectly straight and secure, we turned the tree around and around, until we were satisfied that the fullest, best-shaped branches faced out and away from the wall.
Perhaps that night, or the next day, we brought out boxes and boxes of Christmas tree decorations. These baubles, lights, garland, and tinsel went on in a specific order. First, we put on the lights. These strings of colored bulbs usually went on from top to bottom and were arranged and rearranged until when lit, they seemed to cover every blank space on the tree. This was the least fun of all things going on the tree, so we let the big people worry about that, until we became big ourselves that is. Then if we used garlands, it went on. Next, we brought out the glass ornaments, each carefully stored inside cardboard holders and as the years went by, inside foam ones. Every year we accidentally broke at least a half-dozen, so new ones would join the collection, including big fancy ones with each of our names. ONLY the owner of each of those ornaments could place that particular one on the tree, so the “named” bulbs went on first.
After all the ornaments were on, with every branch having at least one or two baubles hanging from it, that’s when we placed tinsel on each branch until the whole tree shimmered with it. Depending on our disposition, some of us kids would throw it on, while others of us were more likely to carefully place each foot-long piece across a single needle or branch. I was torn between the two methods and did both. Once the tree became our finished masterpiece, we’d truly complete it by placing the biggest ornament of all, the glass Christmas Star, on the very tiptop of the tree. This required a ladder, and once my dad had placed it on the top, we knew it had officially become OUR tree.
A week or so before the 25th, we hung up our big red stockings over the mantle, one for each member of the family, each stocking designated by name; and we actually HAD a mantle once we moved to Michigan, which was nice after years of "pretend mantles."
We usually went to midnight Mass, which began at midnight, but we’d go early to enjoy an hour of choir-sung Christmas carols and hymns. When we came home, we delightedly placed the final ceramic piece, the baby Jesus, into the manger scene. Next, we each opened one present. The final thing we did before hitting the hay, was to set out a plate with a cookie on it, along with a glass of milk for Santa to enjoy. After all, we wanted to make sure he actually came. After that, we went to bed. The late Mass was tiring for us kids, so we quickly fell asleep.
The next morning, festivities began when the first kid awoke; usually Kevin, but not always, and then that kid’s excitement ended up waking the rest of us. Our screams of delight would wake up bleary-eyed parents, who’d been up much of the night, putting together bicycles or dollhouses, and placing so many wrapped presents under the tree that it looked lost under a sea of brightly colored, bow-sprinkled gifts.
Dad always took his seat on the lounger or in a big stuffed chair, and Mom found her place near him as well. Then, each of us became a Santa’s helper, which meant we would examine each present, read the tag out loud—who it was for and from whom—and then hand that present to it’s owner. This went on until ALL the presents were stacked next to each family member. Mom and Dad usually had a small number of presents, while each of us had as many as 8 or even a dozen or more presents. As we got older, we got fewer presents as our older tastes required more money per gift. I always hated getting clothes, and loved getting games, art supplies, books, and toys.
Once all the gifts were in the proper piles, we took turns opening each. We would examine the tag, and read it aloud, “From Santa, To Phil!” or “From Mom and Dad, To Kevin.” If it were from someone present, we’d hurriedly say thanks and then rip into the beautifully wrapped present, or carefully remove it, depending on the kid and their age. (A psychologist can probably analyze someone by watching them open Christmas gifts). Sometimes there was a shriek of excitement, or perhaps, if a sweater or a shirt, it would be held up with a polite smile and a spoken Thank You.
When all the presents were open, we’d gather the empty boxes, paper and bows for disposal, usually into two or three large plastic garbage bags or into one of the many big empty present boxes. After that, we were free to play with our presents. We’d go outside and ride our new bicycles, skateboards, or roller-skates. Or perhaps shoot some baskets, throw a football, play lawn darts, or go to our friends’ houses and see what neat things they got. Those were good days indeed. I’m interested to know from my brother and sisters--Kevin, Mary Kay and Gail--if their memories are similar to mine, and what traditions I might have forgotten or left out. Comments anyone?
Anyway, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!