Friday, December 21, 2012

A Very Traditional Christmas

"Something old, something red, something borrowed, something dead," as Krampus, St. Nicholas' holiday devil, famously said. What that phrase I just made up now means is that holidays are steeped in tradition. For most of us, Christmastime is when we dust off winter traditions we loved as kids and continue to build them within our families and/or we try to create new ones that we hope will catch on.


When I was growing up, my mom and dad tried very hard to make Christmas different from other times of the year. Much of the time we were either lower-middle class or poor but that never seemed to matter. It was magical.

The decorations would go up (some handmade the year or five before), the egg nog and wassail would flow freely, and the kitchen smelled at various times of ham, turkey, spices, rolls, cocoa, sugar cookies, homemade mints, caramels, and pecan logs.

We always had music playing and I remember especially loving Andy Williams, MoTab, Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, and John Denver and the Muppets. Each year we'd mark the calendar, much like my contemporary Ken Craig, so as not to miss any stop-motion or traditionally animated holiday special. My favorite? "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."

We often went caroling, sledding, and visiting Grandma's house during the holidays and one of my favorite Christmases was when we took boxes of food, blankets, and other supplies and gave them to homeless people.

On Christmas Eve, we were allowed to open one present, not including the less exciting traditional new pajamas gift. In our home, we had 4-7 kids at various times – there was always a baby to play Jesus –  so this night was when my dad would read Luke 2 and Mark something while we dressed in robes and towels to portray the remaining roles of Mary, Joseph, Wise Men, and Shepherds. Christmas Eve at our house always felt calm yet tinged with excitement. We would eat, watch movies or specials, play board games, put ginger bread houses together, and continue working on some 5,000,000 piece puzzle. There was always a puzzle being built. My little brother Jared was the king of puzzles, even at the earliest age. I was good at finding the edges.

Christmas morning, when we were finally allowed to stop pretending we were asleep, my mom would turn on the twinkling lights, put on Bing Crosby, and we'd all line up at the top of the stairs or in the hall according to age, youngest first. My parents were masters of the Ty Pennington reveal, creating suspense, joy, anxiety, and glee with one or two well-timed grins. As we'd enter the main room of the home, screams of delight would fill the home as we'd find the part of the sofa or recliner where our stockings were pinned, marking also where Santa had left each child's gifts. We never tore into our gifts at this point. We always went around in a circle, one gift at a time, so that we could share in the awe of each sibling's haul. Doing this made the morning last and, by the time we were done, the tough choice of which toy to free from its plastic prison faced each of us. We were never poor on Christmas.


Today, I have a wife and two kids. Our time together during the holidays is mostly filled with trying to figure out how we can do as little as possible and get more couch togetherness time. It's what we like to do. We're pretty good at it year round but we do have our traditions too.

We still cook at Christmas (Amelia is fantastic at it) but we don't really do the homemade candy part. We "try" to eat healthy-ish treats (and by that I mean packages of peanut M&Ms). We love egg nog and cocoa time. We often have a "pickin' ham" which, once we've used it for the main dish, we cover in the fridge and pick at it to make sandwiches or ... just eat a drive-by handful.

Amelia and the kids usually decorate the tree after school one day while I'm at work and I think they like it. This year we got our first fresh tree as a family, tied it on the roof, and brought it home without incident. Our home smelled like what I imagine Narnia would smell like – crisp, clean, fresh, piney, and British – for at least a week.

Music is still a big part of Christmas for us, and thankfully, my kids love the John Denver/Muppets album as much as Amelia and I did/do. It might come from our iPhone speaker set via Spotify but it still infuses our home with holiday cheer. "It's a Wonderful Life," "Miracle on 42nd Street," and animated shows we remember to DVR are regularly viewed. We also love to go to the theater to see as many movies as we can during the break, something we could never do as a family when I was young.

We serve others given the opportunity and get wonderful drop in visits from our dear friends and near strangers. We'll take cookies around from time to time as well. We'll build snowmen, have snowball fights, and go sledding from time to time but not every year. I'm ok with it.

On Christmas Eve, the kids open new pajamas and my dad usually drops by with their gifts, watches them open them, and has some cheese and crackers. That night or sometime the next afternoon we get visits from other family in the area. Our home is sort of the gathering place at Christmas.

I always read Luke 2 and Mark something while but we haven't done the role-playing part. The kids simply listen as they cuddle their mother. Christmas Eve at our house is calm yet filled with anticipation. We eat, watch movies or specials, play board games, and work on some 5,000,000,000 piece puzzle. Amelia and the kids are brilliant at puzzles. I am good at finding the edges.

Christmas morning, I turn on the twinkling lights, put on Bing Crosby and we line up the two excited munchkins in the hall. We try to master the Ty Pennington reveal but the truth is I'm just as excited as they are. As we enter the main room of the home, gasps of happy breath escape and fill our home as they find the part of the sofa or chair where the stockings were hung. Our daughter always checks to see if Santa has eaten the milk and cookies and if he's left a thank you note. He always does but he only leaves a few gifts for the kids. (The best ones come labeled "From Mom and Dad.") We never tear into our presents. We go in a circle, one gift at a time, so that we can share in the experience of giving and receiving. Doing this makes the morning last. I never want it to end. I hope our kids feel it too and I hope they find some tradition like these they enjoy enough to try and pass on.

We've been blessed in recent years so money at Christmas hasn't been the issue I imagine it was for my parents. But, I don't think it ever would be. Our love for each other, the Spirit in our home, and our traditions make it feel special to me. We'll never be poor on Christmas.

Happy holidays.

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