Christmas Memories

I’ve said it before…I love Christmas.  It was always magical to me as a kid, but that magic was lost for a while.  Now, as new magic is created through my children, I always think back to my own childhood (and after) memories.  I wrote the below a few years ago, but thought I would re-publish it here.

My brother and half the family was in one car and the rest of us were in another when “Feliz Navidad” came on the radio. It was Christmas Eve years ago and we were packed into the two cars headed up to one of my aunt’s houses for a Christmas party. Both cars had the same radio station on, and for some reason, the song just sparked what my son would call, a case of the sillies. Each car started to try to outdo the other in the lip-syncing to the song and the “dance” moves (mind you, I believe the youngest in the cars was my sister Danielle, who was probably in high school at the time) as we drove up the highway, side by side. I won’t go into too much detail – it was one of those “you had to be there” type moments – but it has burned in my memory as one of my favorite Christmas memories.

As an adult, before my own children came along, I have struggled with Christmas. It is truly my favorite time of year, but as a kid, there was more magic to it. I still remember when I honestly believed in Santa Claus. I loved having that “fairy story” to believe in, and even now, I feel my soul and heart turning as I think of those days.  I think it had to do with coming from such a big family…There were surprises around every corner.

A memory that really holds on tight with me was when I was a senior in high school or maybe a freshman in college when late on Christmas Eve my parents sent me to the Quick Check to get a bottle of Egg Nog. I took my time, enjoyed the freedom and quiet of Christmas Eve and looked at all the decorations. I ran into a couple of people I knew at the store and exchanged greetings and I headed home. It was such a surreal sense of peace that I can’t explain that lasted for 20 minutes at the most. In a lot of ways, I felt that was the end of my Christmas innocence. All the years before, Christmas was about being with family, but for the first time, my favorite memory from a Christmas was being by myself. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the company of my family that year…it is very much the opposite. And I certainly don’t enjoy being alone on Christmas. However, it was the first time, because I could drive, that I had a Christmas memory that was mine and mine alone. The Christmases before were about being dragged around by and “adult” on errands and church and parties and they are great memories. The Christmases after seem to be about rushing around and trying force moments with people and focusing too much on trying to create the perfect Christmas memory instead of remembering that perfect Christmas moments just happen…like the trip in the car. That trip to the store seems to be the dividing line between the Christmases as a child and the Christmases as an adult.

With each person in my family, I have such specific memories…favorite memories with them. So many of my childhood memories involve Kyle and Danielle, because they are the closest in age to me. It feels like yesterday that Danielle and I sat on the floor in my room as Kyle was drawing in the upper bunk. I don’t remember the year, but it was Christmas Eve and we were exchanging theories on Santa. None of us believed in Santa anymore, but we had theories of Santa being a spirit that brings good things to people that believed in him and were good. We talked about how he might get around…walking through walls and just instantly jumping from house to house. It’s still a fun theory to think about.

I have an endless stream of Christmas memories with Danielle. So many times we would sit early in the morning trying to figure out what might be under the colorful gift wrap and conspiring on how long we had to wait before waking up the rest of the family and the best way to do it. Kyle was often involved, but he would grow out of it before Danielle and I did because of our ages. Because Danielle and I are the youngest and so close in age, most of my Christmas memories of a child are in being shoulder to shoulder with her and I treasure those memories.

My favorite memory with Kyle was the year we combed the woods behind our house in Hopatcong, NJ and the neighborhood to find the perfect Christmas tree for the room we shared. I think the previous year we had taken the top off a tree in a lot down the street that belong to someone else. Needless to say, we got in trouble. So that year, we found ourselves stumped after spending most of the morning looking. Finally, we came across an old mattress that someone was throwing away. A couple of springs were sticking out and it occurred to us that they were shaped a bit like pine trees. So, we went home, grabbed my dad’s wire cutters and removed a bunch of these. We then piled them three-high in the shape of a Christmas tree and then cut small branches of the giant pine tree in our front yard. We stuck these between the wires of the springs and then put lights and decorations on it. It was perfect in my memory, and, by far, my favorite Christmas tree.

The memories with Chris, Terry and Tara are a bit different because of the age difference. Tara is 10 years older, Terry, 8 and Chris, 5. However, I have so many great memories. A lot of times, I feel, they tried to help make Christmas special for Danielle, Kyle and I. Admittedly, they had different ideas of what that meant…We had a tradition in our family of doing Kris Kringle during Advent. We would each pick a name out of a hat and during advent, we would secretly leave little gifts like candy under each others pillow or somewhere else or do something nice for the person you had. There was something magical to waking up one random day to find a candy bar in your shoe, a candy cane tucked in the pocket of your jacket or a peppermint patty tapes to the back of your neck (Terry’s idea of making Christmas special). Then on Christmas, we would try to guess who our Kris Kringle was.

You always wanted to have Tara as your Kris Kringle, because she would go all out. You would never know what you would get. The one year, she had me and twelve days before Christmas, paper bags with my name started showing up and a modification of “12 days of Christmas”. I think instead of a partridge in a pear tree, she did a Twinkie in a paper bag and instead of five golden rings, it was five jelly rings. I remember how exciting it was to wake up each morning to see what was in the bag that day…which always included the stuff from all the previous days, as well as the new stuff. Still, to this day, I find that to be so cool.

My strongest memory of Terry at Christmas is that car trip. I believe he was the one that initiated it and the one that really had the rest of us really laughing. At one point, to express how lame he thought our “song and dance” routine was, he put his head down and pretended to be sleeping. Of course, he was the driver of the other car, and we didn’t know that my mom was secretly holding the steering wheel that he had his head resting on with his eyes closed. Oh, of course, this could have gone a whole other way as far as Christmas memories, but something about it was so funny and I still chuckle to this day thinking about it.

My memories of Chris and Christmas seem to be around LEGOs. He loved them as a kid and I think that is where I got my love of them (which still exists to this day). I remember one Christmas, when we lived in Colorado in 1977 or 1978, we had all gotten LEGO’s from Santa. I can remember sitting in Chris’ room with him and a giant pile of LEGO’s between us as we built castles and spaceships. I think that is were we spent the entire day. In subsequent Christmas’ he would seem to always be there to help put a toy together or figure something out.

When I look at a potential new place to live, as I walk through it, I imagine how I would decorate it for Christmas. I love decorating for Christmas and each year, I try to top what I did the year before. I believe this is a trait I get from my dad. Every year, he would do everything he could to make the house just right for Christmas. Whether is was taking us out into the mountains of Colorado to find the perfect trees or taking these small mirrors he got somewhere and turning them into ornaments that would reflect the tree lights around the room. As I get the house ready for my own kids, I always find myself thinking about the ways he would decorate.

Mom would just go to great lengths to make the food perfect through the holidays. I can recall so many times sitting with her at the big wooden kitchen table, making a million different kinds of cookies. The kitchen would just become a flurry of activity on Christmas Eve and I so enjoyed being in the middle of it. However, my favorite memories were of going on different errands on Christmas Eve morning. It was kind of the calm before the storm, and it was just her and I going from place to place, picking up fish or meat or going to the Viking bakery to pick up a cake or pie. I still miss doing that with my mom. There was something really special about the peace of Christmas Eve morning.

All-in-all, it is the memories of my entire family together on Christmas Eve the most. I hate to over use the word, but they were magical (and, in hindsight, I don’t know how my parents did it with six kids). It would start with a Christmas party at my aunts house in late afternoon or evening. We would then leave that and go home for maybe an hour or two. Danielle and I were often sent to bed to try to get a little sleep before we were taken to midnight mass. I loved midnight mass…the excitement and the people and the special music and the colors and the incenses. We would come back and then eat a ton of food that my mom made. We would be allowed to open a present or two before we went off to bed. It was a whirlwind of excitement and year after year is burned in my brain in this endless stream of memories. Just thinking of them today, makes that magic come back alive.

In the years since, I have a whole host of wonderful memories, but they are just different kinds of memories. Andrea and I have ten wonderful Christmases together and each one has been so special. However, I always felt there was a stress in the preparation an run up to the holiday.  Christmas became more about getting from house to house rather than enjoying the magic.

That all changed in 2005, when Benjamin was born.  He was four months old at his first Christmas and I can still see the colorful tree lights reflecting in his eye.  Of course, he didn’t know what was going on, but I saw all the Christmases of the future in that sparkle and the magic returned.

Each year, as my own boys get older, Christmas feels like it did when I was a kid. The wonderful magic is all around in their little faces, especially with Benjamin, as he not only remembers things from last Christmas, but is developing his own theories on Santa and how Christmas should be. These days, I enjoy plotting ways to perpetuate the magic of Santa Claus with them. They remind me of the wonder and splendor of Christmas, again. In my mind, I try to picture all the Christmas going forward as Andrea and I mark time for the kids with the holiday. I picture the four of use getting older together and developing our own traditions and seeing what magical moment will be burned in our brains going forward.

And, the great memories do continue with my brothers and sisters…sure, a lot of spiked Egg Nog is involved, but they continue.  We don’t always get to see each other on Christmas, but usually we find time to be together at the holidays and it is always cherished.  As I write, my brain is flooded with new memories and moments from the last few years with my family, but they will have to be for another time.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

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