Imagine going to bed on Christmas Eve as a child, with nary a candy cane, ornament or wreath in the house. Your parents scoot you off as if it’s just any other day. When you wake up, there’s a big decorated Christmas tree all lit up! And nativity scene! And presents! O magical Christmas joy!
This was what my parents did, back in the early 1950s, when my oldest siblings were toddlers. I’ve always been smitten by this tradition, which, for obvious reasons, was not sustainable after a few more of us showed up. As wholesome with sheer delight as they were, those chubby faces of wonder couldn’t justify assembling bikes, dollhouses and train sets at 3 am anymore. Fatigue prevailed.
Even though we didn’t rely on Santa to bring the tree and all the decorations on Christmas morning by the time I came along, we never put up our tree or the decorations earlier than Christmas Eve. As the neighbors’ lights and adornments began to illuminate our street in early December, we’d gaze wistfully but knew ours would be done when appropriate. My mother stopped short of outright declarations of sacrilege and blasphemy against the neighbors for prematurely decorating, but you knew where they stood. No discipline, no respect. Sheesh.
Mom and Dad’s discipline did not waver Christmas morning, either. Forbidden to leave our beds till 7 am, we woke to our stockings filled with a couple of toys and an orange at the bottom, but the tree and all of Santa’s gifts (assuming he’d come) were out of sight, in our living room with the doors shut and NO ONE ALLOWED in, besides Dad. Then we were off to mass, after which we came home and had a huge, long breakfast of Mom’s holiday specialty, kidney stew. An Irish delicacy, we were assured. Still the doors stayed closed and would not be opening anytime soon. As we scarfed our food down with one cheek off the chair, Mom would not only not be hurried, but also had the gall to ask for another cup of coffee. Torture! Ah, the memories. Kidney stew and long wait times. I’m laughing because it sounds almost unpleasant now but it was truly special and wondrous.
Then came my own little family. Both my husband and I had fond memories and traditions that we looked forward to introducing to our own children. We sprinkled reindeer food (oats and glitter) in the back yard, left cookies and milk for Santa and carrots for the reindeer, and enjoyed Bloody Marys with my aunt and cousin every year. Ok, that last one became a newer tradition, for the adults. My husband would take the children outside to look for Santa’s sleigh up in the sky. We’d try to get them into bed early, as we had our own batch of bikes and dollhouses to assemble, as well as bags of wrapped gifts to schlepp down from the garage attic into the living room. It was crushing, the weight of that terror of waking up those little believers. We’d fall into bed, exhausted, only to be woken up by those little believers a couple of hours later. My dad’s 7 am rule made so much sense to me now.
When asked to recall our family traditions, my teens mentioned dragging the decorations out of the attic, and maybe hanging up some cards. Sounds magical, doesn’t it? Oh well. Maybe I should have continued that kidney stew constitution.
What are some of your favorite (or not so favorite) holiday traditions?