For this final 12 Days of Christmas post, I wanted to share my own holiday traditions with you. Each person has their own version of their special holiday, be it waiting in line at 3 am each Black Friday with your aunts and mother, or lighting the Hanukkah candles, surrounded by loved ones, or watching A Christmas Story with your wacky uncle each year, drinking glasses of egg nog. This is my story. This is how I remember Christmas best. I hope you share your traditions this season, too. :)
It is the day after Thanksgiving. With leftover turkey still in the fridge and our extended family scattering back to all points of the country, my family bundles up and heads to our local Christmas tree farm. I am small, and my sister smaller. The winters in the Southwest are not cold, but they are nippy enough to make our noses red and cheeks pink. We are wrapped in several layers of over-sized clothing and boots for the mud. The Christmas tree farmer gives my sister and I mugs of hot chocolate and peppermint sticks, and coloring books with pictures of little fir trees and reindeer. We suck on our peppermint sticks slowly, watching them dissolve into tiny white slivers, the red stripes pasted to our lips. We spend a long time wandering the rows of trees. It has to be perfect, our tree. Not too tall, not to short. Not too wide, not too skinny. Just the right amount of branches for ornaments, but not too droopy or low or crooked. My sister and I grow bored and chase each other through the fir trees, pretending we are Christmas elves.
We find the perfect tree. Or rather, if finds us. Somehow it chooses us every year, and when we get it back home, we place it inside and know it is perfect. There are pine needles all over the floor, and boxes of Christmas decorations that my mom has pulled out of the garage. My dad carries my sister outside on his shoulders; they begin the careful task of tacking up the Christmas lights along our roof-top. My mom and I pull out the indoor lights and carefully string the tree. We play Christmas music by Amy Grant, Andy Williams, and George Winston. We talk about our upcoming trip to Santa Fe, as we take each year, to visit my aunt and cousins. I sigh happily over memories of adobe houses, Christmas craft fairs and sparkling city lights beneath a dusting of snow.
Our nativity is next: a wooden stable that my grandfather made for my mom before he died. Inside are small wooden figures: a Mary, Joseph, wise men and baby Jesus. But my favorite are the delicate wooden camels. They are beautifully hand carved; my grandmother brought the nativity back from Bethlehem for us long ago. My mom adds figurines to the stable from her travels each year: a wooden owl from Peru, a heilan coo from Scotland, a soapstone Zebra from Brazil. Over the years the holy stable has become a menagerie of brightly colored and mismatched bits of the world.
The household decorations go up: garland around the banisters and porch posts. Lights in the windows. Stitched stockings with repeating patterns, one for each of us: angels for mom, nutcrackers for dad, bears for my sister, Santas for me. My mom's elaborate collection of Santa Clauses. They are everywhere: wooden ones and wooly ones, tall ones and short ones, skinny ones and plump ones. Hand painted, hand carved, hand stitched. They come from local and abroad, from near and far. They are Father Christmases and Pere Noels and Kris Kringles. They each have their own personality and they watch over us through the season.
December passes by. My sister and I sneak candy canes off the tree when no one is looking. We hide the wooden baby Jesus until Christmas morning. We watch The Santa Clause and Miracle on 34th Street over and over. We push our beds together in our room and lay a large down comforter on top, whispering about the presents under the tree. They have already begun to appear: gifts carefully wrapped by mom and dad. My mom puts a code on them each year, so my sister and I won't know which ones are ours until Christmas morning. Each year we try to solve the code early, and this year mom asks us if she can just write our names on them. She can't think of another code, she says. My sister and I say no! We love solving riddles. We like the codes. We like pretending and guessing which presents might be ours, but never really knowing. Last year our presents spelled out words, each one a different letter. Hers said Happy Holidays in red. Mine said Seasons Greetings in green.
Christmas draws closer. Each Sunday at church the Advent candles are lit: four of them on a wreath of garland. Three of the candles are purple, one is pink for Mother Mary. I count down the days to Christmas by watching the candles light each week.
My family spends our evenings driving slowly through our favorite neighborhoods, looking at Christmas lights. We sit by the tree in the dark before bed, watching the lights twinkle while listening to Christmas music. My sister and I go caroling with our Girl Scout troops. On Christmas Eve we go to evening Mass. My sister and I are in the nativity play. I am a wise man this year, and she is a shepherd. I wear my mom's wooly bath robe and my sister brings a walking staff. I bring a small jewelry box as Myrrh for the baby Jesus. The church is lit with candles and singers, and everything feels magical. We sing Hark, the Harold Angels Sing, Oh Bethlehem, and my favorite, O, Holy Night.
We return home sleepy, yet excited. At this age, Santa is a wonderful bit of magic to me. I sit down and write him a careful letter. I can hardly wait to leave out a plate of fig newtons and carrots (for Rudolph). I want to go to bed right away, but I stay up with my sister reading The Polar Express and The Night Before Christmas. I remember listening for sleigh bells before falling asleep.
Christmas morning comes quickly: my sister and I tiptoe out of bed so we don't wake our parents. Wrapped in blankets, we sneak into the living room where Santa has left a plate full of crumbs and two perfectly wrapped presents, one for her and one for me. These are the only two presents we are allowed to open before anyone else wakes up, so we dive into them with giggles and then impatiently return to bed, waiting for mom and dad to awaken. When everyone is up, we turn on the music, pretend to gobble down breakfast, and settle down beneath the tree. My sister and I learn that this year's code is a numbered system for each of us. Mom has the cheat sheet on a small index card, but halfway through my dad opens a book titled Just for Girls, and mom realizes she mixed up the system a little and we laugh. Our presents are always carefully matched; if I get a six-year old's makeup kit, my sister gets a three year old's makeup kit. We open them at the same time. Mom and dad take their turn in between. Usually the gifts are small things, baubles and delights. One or two special "big" presents are saved until very last. A firework finale.
When the living room is wholly strewn with wrapping paper, we clean up the wreckage and take pictures with our presents carefully arranged around us. The photos are put into our scrapbooks, and it is fun to look back at years past and see how the times have changed. I got my first set of legos that year... there's my favorite doll... remember that book? I had almost forgotten about Lite-Brites, or Polly Pockets, or Little People toy sets, but there they are, in my photos over the years.
The rest of the holiday is for family, and for travels, and for sharing those moments over and over. We keep our tree up until New Years, sometimes later, and when it's finally time to take it down, my dad loads it into his truck and brings it to his lake where he can sink it. He marks the spot on his radar and will fish there for the rest of the year. We carefully pack up ornaments and decorations and take down the lights, boxing away the memories for another year.
What are your traditions?
Happy holidays! (I will be back next year!) ;)