When I was a little boy, Santa Claus brought our Christmas tree along with the stockings filled with small gifts and candy. The whole family would go to church on Christmas Eve for the Sunday School program, and when we got home my parents would hurry me off to bed, warning me that “Santa won’t come until you’re asleep.” Then my parents would stay up for what seemed like hours. I would even hear my mother vacuuming, and I would wonder why she didn’t go to bed, since Santa wouldn’t come until she and my father were asleep.
In the morning the tree would be in the living room, lights glowing, covered with ornaments, and many family presents under the tree. Of course back then the Christmas tree was enormous—it towered all the way to the ceiling. These days I barely need a stepladder to touch the top of the tree. They just don’t make Christmas trees the same any more.
We always had a real tree, and we always kept it up for all twelve days of Christmas, so I suppose it made sense for it not to appear before Christmas Eve. We had other Christmas decorations up through much of December. My mother would cut evergreen branches and weave them into a wreath for the front door. We had a ceramic nativity scene on a card table in the living room. My father would hang lights on the spruce tree in our front yard. Some years I would make ornaments for that tree. My mother saved the plastic trays that came with the meat, and on a long December Saturday or Sunday afternoon she would give me some of those trays and her collection of cookie cutters. I would trace the cutters onto the trays, cut out the shapes, and color them with crayons. I’m sure that kept me out of the way while she baked Christmas cookies and peanut brittle and fudge.
My father took off one weekday in December so the family could go downtown. My parents liked to see the Christmas decorations in the stores, but they told me the reason for the trip was so I could tell Santa what I wanted for Christmas. The men who dressed like Santa Claus in the suburban shopping malls only worked for Santa, but the man in the downtown department store was the real Santa Claus. Santa always made me feel nervous when I was little. It didn’t help matters that my parents and I had to stand in line for an hour or more to get to Santa, surrounded by other children and their parents. Frankly, I would have been content to stay home and write Santa a letter, but the trip into The City was an important tradition for the whole family.
The Sunday School students practiced for the Christmas Eve program on Saturday mornings in December. The smallest children sang “Away in a Manger” and “God Loves Me Dearly,” and older children sang other traditional hymns. We also had speaking parts, most of which were verses from the Bible. A few children would be selected to portray Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the angels, and the wise men. I cannot remember which of those roles I played over the years. I do remember saying the verses from Luke that Linus recites for Charlie Brown to explain the meaning of Christmas. I remember the pastor’s wife standing in the back of the church during rehearsals, shouting, “I can’t hear you singing!” My memory is probably exaggerating, but it seemed that she did that every song, every Saturday, every year.
On Christmas morning once everyone was awake—and most years that happened earlier on Christmas morning than on any other morning, expect perhaps Easter—we would sit in the living room and unwrap the gifts in our stockings. Those were from Santa Claus, and the tradition was to shout, “Thank you, Santa,” for each gift we opened. Then we would tackle the gifts from family, which were under the tree. My parents gave me practical things like clothes. My out-of-state grandparents gave me the best gifts—one year a chemistry set, another year an electronics kit, and still another year an electronic Battleship game. Only recently did I learn that those grandparents always sent a check to my parents, and my parents actually chose their gift.
Around noon my in-state grandparents would arrive. We would exchange gifts, and then every member of the family had to show what gifts we had already opened that morning. The gifts stayed under the tree for several days before they were gradually gathered into the household possessions. Each member of the family had a certain section under the tree where our gifts were left. Early Christmas afternoon, we would have a grand dinner, much like the meal we had eaten a month earlier for Thanksgiving. I had to try a little bit of everything, even the sweet potatoes, which I already knew I didn’t like. My grandparents would visit with us through the afternoon. Sometimes we would work a jigsaw puzzle together. Then we had supper: sandwiches and maybe some leftovers from the grand dinner.
Often my favorite Christmas gift was something small in the stocking. One year it was a book about a man who lived in a white house on a street where every house was exactly the same. Every time he tried to make his house look different—such as planting a tree in his front yard–all the neighbors liked what he did and imitated him. Finally, he painted his house purple. When the neighbors again liked his idea, they were able to agree to choose different colors for their various houses. I read that book several times that Christmas day. Another year I got a Slinky in my stocking. I loved playing with that all afternoon, watching it walk down the basement stairs. When more family dropped by that evening, one of my cousins tried to take the Slinky away from me. I held on to it, and it was ruined. I was heartbroken. Christmas was early in the week that year, but Santa came back on Friday night and left a new Slinky for me to find by the fireplace Saturday morning.
My household has developed its own Christmas customs. Some are like those I had as a boy; others are different. The Sunday School program is on a Sunday in the middle of December instead of Christmas Eve. We go to the early Christmas Eve service, the big candlelight service at midnight, and the Christmas morning service. Christmas morning is my favorite. Our preacher not only keeps Christ in Christmas, but he also keeps the Mass in Christmas Day. A smaller group of people comes, but the joy of the holiday is warm and genuine.
May each and every one of you have a Merry and wonderful Christmas this year. J.