Growing up, our parents took us to midnight mass, so we could stay home on Christmas morning. It was also a good way to ensure we’d all be fast asleep when Santa came during the night.
Santa would bring toys, and new board games which our Dad always loved to play. Fisher Price farms, castles and houses, Madame Alexander dolls, books, trains, socks and underwear … Santa always knew what we needed and (sometimes) what we wanted.
We kids gave each other candy bars or handmade items. Fifty years later, I still have a little stuffed bear sitting on top of a semi-circle of wood into which my initials are carved. Spending money wasn’t the point for us at Christmas.
We weren’t a restrained family, opening one gift each on Christmas Eve, and then, on Christmas Day, after breakfast, sitting together and watching as each present is opened one at a time to a chorus of approving oohs and ahs. That was definitely not us … not that there’s anything wrong with that kind of Christmas.
No. First of all, we couldn’t open anything before Christmas morning, although one of my sisters would shake, poke and prod her gifts to try to guess its contents. Then, on Christmas morning, we all had to be gathered together at the top of the stairs before anyone could go down. This included Grandmom, so the wait would become excruciating.
Once she emerged, with her carefully set hair out of its sleeping net and her robe buttoned at her neck, the kids barreled down the stairs and flew into the living room, where Santa had organized all the presents into individual piles and where the large Christmas tree filled one corner. You found your pile, and then the room erupted into a wild 15 minutes of paper-tearing, whoo-hoos, thank-yous and smiles.
The stockings then called, hanging from nails above the fireplace, each with a mandarin orange in the toe, and stuffed with nuts and candy. Oh, that river of candy! Candy only showed up for us three times a year, on Halloween, Christmas and Easter. When it did, there were no restraints on how much we could eat at once.
Our stockings didn’t have gifts in them, and I don’t remember much chocolate either. Lots of the 60s and 70s candy wasn’t individually wrapped. We’d get those weird, spongy, orange peanuts, root-beer barrels, peppermints, filled and unfilled hard Christmas candies, Whoppers, Mary Janes, caramels with white cream, gumdrops, Neccos, black and red licorice, jawbreakers, Sugar Daddies and candy canes. I’m sure there were more kinds, but those are the ones I remember best.
Once the presents were opened, our dad would make eggs to order, asking each kid how we’d like them. The day would then pass in rounds of games, meals, and playing outside, especially if there was snow, or curled up on a couch reading a new book.
The nostalgia of our childhoods is painted at the time with the newness of every experience. I saw it manifest with my niece and nephew, who later in their teens would say, “We always would bake cookies and then sit close by the fire to eat them.”
This happened once, when they were toddlers. But for them, it was a huge memory.
Memory is curious and tricky. Those so-short years of childhood remain the most defining for so many. At two or three, we start making sense of what’s going on around us. At around eight, we are old enough to understand things, and to have certain freedoms, but not to have any responsibilities yet. Around twelve or thirteen, we’re “old hats” at everything. We are self-aware, self-defining, on our road, and itching to get out and do what we want to do. We think we know everything.
There’s five more years, though, mostly consumed by school and self-discovery, and then, boom! You’re eighteen and an “adult.” The childhood memories have become cemented into a, “this is how it was,” glossed picture. Even that fades in intensity over time until to remember anything visceral about the first years beyond those touchstone photos is almost impossible. Once in a while, a breeze of memory carries with it a fleeting sense of how it really felt, back then, but it’s the “huge” memories that really take center stage.
Our adult years start clicking by, faster and faster, and we stop remembering things. Is it because we don’t do anything new so nothing becomes huge in our memory? Or is it that we just don’t have time to think much, and nothing stands out much, with the day’s every waking moment filled with rushing, working and chores?
In these strange Covid days, I have time to be writing about memories of Christmas on Christmas Eve.
Childhood Christmas memories are painted with that sweet magical haze, whereas my adult memories of Christmas morphed, like most grown-ups’, into memories with little magic and lots of work.
Since my early teen years, I was the family’s Santa’s Helper, until gradually my parents did none of the Christmas decorating or getting the rooms ready for the onslaught. Christmas Eve became consumed by presents-wrapping, stocking-stuffing and pile-making. I fell asleep at 4 or 5 am and experienced Christmas through a fog of exhaustion.
This year, for the first time in my 56 years, I am completely alone on Christmas Eve. Tucked into my new home, the quiet rain pattering on the roof, I have a breath of perspective.
Over the last two days, I made cookies, and plan to deliver them tomorrow to my friends and neighbors. Chocolate chip, butterscotch chip, sugar cookies and the ever-favorite Viennese crescents. I didn’t make our family’s traditional Split Seconds cookies because the jelly would stick to other cookies in the box, nor did I make the candy-cane cookies, because I never liked them much, they being too dry for my taste, nor did I make the mocha balls, since they have to stay refrigerated.
But I had a fun Christmas kitchen, with several rounds of, “Okay, now clean it all up and start a new recipe.”
Covid has made Christmas into a solitary experience for me this year. Am I sad? I suppose a bit … I had a little cry on the couch earlier tonight. But it was a short one. I am so grateful for everything, it’s hard to feel sad for long.
Now that our parents died, my family groups live far from each other, but most of us stay in touch via texts, online games and the random phone call.
These days, I could be focusing on what’s missing, what I don’t have, who I’m not seeing, what I’m not doing, but when there are so many everywhere who are in pain, who are sick and dying, who have just lost someone, who are in financial distress, I am overwhelmed with a feeling of gratitude for the warmth in my home, the softness of my blankets and that there is food in my refrigerator and potable water in my faucets.
I could be sad, spending this first Christmas in my whole life all alone. But I was able to spend two days making cookies. Tomorrow, I’ll frost the sugar cookies, put them in pretty red cookie boxes, deliver them to neighbors and drive to my friends’ homes to spread a little Christmas cookie cheer. From a distance, with a mask on. It’s a weird Christmas, that’s for sure, but I’m not sad, I’m grateful.
Grateful for the screeching joy of my childhood Christmases, grateful for the adult Christmases of two-table-sized spectacular family meals, the little ones of the next generation running around with eyes wide at the joyous gatherings and raucous pinochle games, and grateful for this solitary Christmas, safe and warm in my home.
The clock now has ticked for me, as usual, into the wee hours on Christmas Eve. Old habits die hard!
So, as a veteran Santa’s Helper, I know I can pass on this message from Santa:
“HO HO HO! Merry Christmas to All, and to All a Good Night!”