The start of the holiday season when I was growing up was marked by the appearance of Santa Claus at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. My brother’s and I would be glued to the television set watching him, making solemn vows to ourselves to be on our best behavior because the official countdown to Christmas had begun.
Of course as a kid, the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas were the longest of the entire year. The only thing that could distract us and keep us entertained for hours was snow. We would build forts, make snow angels, assemble snowmen and have snowball fights. My older brothers would “shag” off the bumpers of cars in the street until my Mom would yell at them to stop. It wasn’t until our gloves and snow pants were sopping wet; our cheeks flushed and noses running, that we came inside for the hot-cocoa that awaited us.
One year my Dad caved in to our relentless begging and helped us build an ice rink in the backyard. My brothers would play hockey while my girlfriends and I skated in circles pretending to be Dorothy Hamill.
Every night we would watch the classic holiday movies — Rudolph, The Night Before Christmas, The Little Drummer Boy, et al. I would proclaim each of them my very favorite until the next one aired, then that one was my new favorite.
When Christmas Eve finally arrived, I would inform my parents that I intended to go to bed right after dinner. I figured the sooner I slept, the sooner it would be Christmas morning. They allowed me to test my theory once. I bolted awake at 4AM and tip-toed into the living room where I spied a red figure asleep on the couch. “Go back to bed,” it grumbled; and I did just that, terrified that I ruined Christmas somehow. It would be years before my eldest brother would confess that it was him and not the real Santa on the couch that night.
Although there was always a dazzling array of gifts under the tree, a few stand out in my memory: The white Schwinn Bike with a flowered banana seat. There was so much snow that year it would be March before I could take it out for its first slushy ride. I was freezing but grinning oh so big as I rode around the block again and again, carefully wiping it down of all moisture when I returned.
Then there was the cotton candy machine I had coveted so much because the sticky melt-in-your-mouth sugary treat was the absolute best thing in my eight-year-old world. I remember all of the adults hovering over me, warning me how hot it was and urging me to be careful. I burned my hand despite, or perhaps because of, their concern. My Dad the doctor wrapped it up good. To commemorate the event there’s a picture of me holding up my big, white, bandaged fore-finger.
And finally there was the Christmas we got a pool table. My middle brother woke me up to show me well before morning. I was so scared that we’d be caught — not by my parents, but by Santa Claus — that as soon as I saw it I ran back to bed. When neither one of us could feign surprise at the big reveal, my Dad figured out who was behind it all and boy, did my brother get into trouble because he was a lot older than me and should’ve known better.
That pool table, and the pinball machines that followed, became the focal point of all of our family gatherings. Even me, tiny as I was, had my own kid-sized pool stick and was allowed to play the family’s favorite game, pea-pool.
Beyond those precious treasured gifts, though, I have a hard time remembering all the rest. Even though every year there was something I absolutely wanted with all my heart.
Rather, it is all of the seemingly little things that come over me every holiday season and take me right back to my childhood. The way you could smell the Douglas Fir tree throughout the house and how it would take my Mom an entire night to wrap it in lights. I would lay down to look up at it in awe. The cookies we would make together with a cookie press and the chestnuts my Mom roasted for my Father and how happy they made him.
How, when I was older, I was in charge of getting Mom out of the house for an entire day so Dad could wrap her presents. He’d turn on the Christmas carols and set up shop in his home office. Out came the glue gun and fancy bows and somehow my surgeon Dad would exact the best folds and most exquisite wrapping we’d ever seen.
Above all this, I think of how my family played together long into the night, time suspended, not a care in the world. And the laughter; someone was always laughing so hard they couldn’t speak with tears streaming down their face. That’s how I remember Christmas.
These are the gifts my parents gave. I remind myself that my daughter, too, will probably soon forget the robot dog that she had to have this year. But she will always remember the days we had enough snow to go sledding down our hills; the smell of cinnamon buns on Christmas morning and the time we spend in front of the fireplace playing games together as a family. These are the true gifts of Christmas, not what’s under the tree. It’s what we hold in our hearts that we will remember. And this is the gift I want to give her most of all.
In the forward to Frank Ostaskeski’s beautiful book, The Five Invitations* is this quote by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.:
Chances are until you have experienced that one great loss, this will read to you as more ominous than catalytic. Like grief itself, these types of statements can’t fully be absorbed and understood until you experience them yourself.
We can get attached to who we think we are. We can be downright stubborn about it. Our identity seamlessly and completely intertwined with what we do. What we do becomes what we are. But what if what we do is taken away from us in the blink of an eye? Who are we then?
In the words of Chinese Philosopher Lao Tzu: