Every year was the same. Mom did all the shopping and then locked herself in the basement to wrap so we couldn’t see what she’d found for us at the store. She was an amazing shopper- truly something to live up to. She would sometimes buy one of our gifts even when all three of us were with her, and we somehow wouldn’t notice. She’d tell us later sometimes, laughing at how absurd it was, how little we paid attention at the register. Christmas morning never disappointed. Mom and Dad always went overboard. Even with the huge gifts (Barbie Dream House one year, a bike for my brother, a Little Tykes Playhouse for the backyard), mom somehow always found a way to hide it in our house. No matter how hard we looked (and trust me, we looked; we were awful…) we never found where she hid our Christmas presents. They spoiled us rotten; they still do, and now they spoils my kids too.
Dad always took me to the tree lot on Joy Road to help pick our tree. He’d take his thickly calloused hands and reach deep into the branches, tugging on one, running his closed hand over the branch from the trunk to the end to see if any needles would come off. If they didn’t, that meant the tree was well watered and healthy, worthy of coming home with us. He’d stand a few feet back, his thick eyebrows furrowed and his mustache bunched above his lips puckered in concentration, eyeing the tree, sizing it up. Sometimes the tree would have “a buncha holes in it” and we’d have to find another. I never saw what he did, but we never had a bad tree, so I trusted he knew what he was doing. After all, he always has; he’s my dad.
We listened to 100.3 WNIC (Christmas music from the day after Thanksgiving until New Year’s Day) as we’d decorate the house and the tree. Red, green, and white stockings that had been knit special for us with our names on them were hung on the brick wall next to the fireplace downstairs. The felt stockings just stuck to the brick without hooks; I always thought that was funny. Dad’s stocking was huge. There are pictures of each of us as babies sitting inside it. Mom’s was the next largest stocking, and ours were all the same size to prevent squabbling.
Each year we’d receive a Hallmark ornament from Santa and/or mom and dad, something that reflected our interests or a significant event in our life that past year. So each of us had at least as many ornaments as years we were old to put up on the tree, plus whatever ornaments we made at school or received from others as gifts. The idea was that when we moved out eventually, we would have ornaments for our tree that reminded us of home (and it does). Mom had strung popcorn who knows how many years ago: sometime in college, I think, back when she didn’t have us kids to occupy all her time. She always put that on the tree after the lights were on; it was delicate work, perfect for her precise hands.
We weren’t allowed to touch the popcorn garland, and we weren’t allowed to touch the snowglobe collection either (and for good reason- I broke one, one year), or her tiny village of lit up houses or her porcelain nativity scene, but we loved looking at all of them. She did let us play with the little music box that looked like a snowy ice rink. Tiny skaters moved around on the mirrored surface of the ice as a little tune tinkled from inside the box. It was one of my favorite Christmas decorations.
At some point, Mom would clean the kitchen and get out her recipe box and prep sugar cookie dough. We’d get to cut our cookies, then disappear while they baked and reappear when it was time for icing. Mom made rum balls and Chinese noodle cookies. We shook big bags of Puppy Chow and helped mom roll the peanut butter dough for the buckeyes. The fridge was full of treats, and if we ran out of room there, we stuck them in the garage on the shelf, where they’d stay just as cold. We’d bring treats to all our family get-togethers, and still we’d have leftovers until New Year’s Eve.
For my dad, Christmas Eve mass was his favorite tradition. He wanted to go to Midnight mass, but we never could stay awake that long, so he settled for the 10 o’clock mass. I loved all the Christmas music and the candles and poinsettias everywhere; it was a quiet, calm kind of magic. As soon as mass let out, we’d stumble through the crowds to the parking lot, glancing at the Jesse tree on our way to see the tags that had once filled the tree completely gone, smiling knowing we’d taken a few in the weeks prior- another tradition.
We always woke up too early on Christmas morning. Apparently 5am was not suitable for Santa. We were told to go back to bed and get up at no earlier than 6 or 7. Finally, my parents would relent, and we would race to the top of the stairs, craning our necks to see the tree below. We would wait on the stairs until Dad got out the video camera and turned on the lights on the tree. My brother’s space shuttle ornament would go off as the lights turned on, making rocket take off sounds, the tiny commander shouting, “5, 4, 3, 2…” then Dad would say, “Okay, go ahead.” We’d tear down the stairs, walking a little slower towards the tree, eyes wide with wonder at what felt like the mountains before us.
Our stockings that had hung by the fireplace downstairs had magically appeared on the living room couch, fat with chocolate, our new ornaments, and other small gifts. We always looked at the proof that Santa had come first before diving into our stockings. The cookies were gone, the milk cup empty, and a note from Santa thanking us for the snack and telling us to be good this year too sat scrawled in mom’s handwriting, even when we were all in middle school and high school. After stockings, sometimes mom would direct us to open a particular one first before another, allowing her to take photos at just the right time. She’d always ask, “What did Santa bring you?!” regardless of our age because as she always said, “if you don’t believe in Santa, he won’t bring you presents, just underwear.” So, I still believe.
As soon as Dad was done opening his gifts, he would shuffle into the kitchen and start cooking breakfast: pancakes, bacon, coffee, eggs, toast, the works. The smell of bacon and coffee always remind me of Christmas morning for that reason. We’d flip on the TV and watch the parade as we assembled new toys and took stock of the piles before us. Eventually we’d get dressed and head to Christmas morning mass followed by visiting my Godfather Jeff’s house or a different relative or two. By the end of the day, we’d all be worn out and cranky from an early morning and head to bed early, giving big hugs and thank you’s as we said goodnight. Because eventually we realized: the magic of Christmas was in those traditions, and our parents made that magic happen for us each year.
Now, as the parents, the burden falls on us to make the holiday season magical. Some families use a magic moving elf to make that happen; others drive around and look at the lights in their pajamas on Christmas Eve. Regardless of what your holiday season looks like, I think the most important thing to remember is that it’s the people we love and the time they put in to being with us who make the traditions special. It’s a time of year dedicated to bustling about all month long so that for just one day, we can all sigh deeply and enjoy the joy around us.