Christmas Memories from Half a Lifetime

I’ve had 49 Christmases so far in my lifetime, though to be fair I only clearly remember about 40 of them. Those first nine are only really vivid in the old photographs stashed in a box in the closet. If I discount the ones I remember that I’d rather forget, I’m down to 32 memories of Christmas I’d care to relive.

Christmas was always a big event in our family; actually, two events. After my tenth Christmas, my brother and I celebrated Christmas Eve with our mother and Christmas Day with our father. They were as different as the doctrines behind Halloween and Christmas; the celebration, not my parents, though that was certainly true, too, and explains about half the Christmas memories I’d rather forget.

At Mom’s house we dined on hors d’oeuvres, homemade eggnog and fake champagne, and whatever leftover Christmas cookies could be found in the house. In much the same way that Mom made everything special, Christmas Eve was a spectacular evening. It was a casual affair, almost always just us. Mom used her finest china and displayed the food as though we were expecting royalty to dine with us. She played the piano and we sang Christmas carols. Sometimes my brother and I would break out the violin cases and perform a Christmas concert just for us, or one of us would stumble through a song on the piano. If I’d ever wondered about the definition of “joyous,” those Christmas Eves were the embodiment of the word: festive, jubilant, jolly and merry.

Always, I remember us begging Mom to let us open “just one” Christmas present. She put up artificial opposition every year until eventually it became a holiday tradition to open our gifts on Christmas Eve. When we awoke on Christmas morning, prepared to make the trek over to Dad’s for our next celebration, there was always another stack of gifts under the tree. I remember beginning to understand things being very lean for us, financially, but it was never evident at Christmas with Mom. She made Christmas so special, my memories of Christmas revered.

At Dad’s house we usually had a couple dozen family members assemble for gifting and gorging on Christmas Day. Before everyone arrived, though, it was Christmas for just us. We opened the gifts we brought for each other; thoughtful gifts that really meant something to each one of us, though Dad received his fair share of ugly ties, horribly aromatic aftershave and probably enough paperweights to sink a ship. The tree was always piled with presents. Some years the gifts extended five feet from the edge of the last branch of the tree. As family members arrived, more gifts would be dropped under the tree, each waiting for its turn to be opened. The only rival to the number of gifts that day was the food. Oh, the food! Small colonies in any undeveloped country would feast for a week on all that we consumed on that day. The traditional foods, like oyster stuffing and frozen junk, always made room for something new someone brought, a food secretly hoping to become a part of the traditional menu.

It was a raucous family affair. People were scattered all over the house, not unlike the wrapping paper and leftovers from the meal. Small groups in corners, on sofas, and at the table, each having a different conversation, competing to be heard. Someone yelling across the living room, “Don’t you remember when so-and-so did such-and-such?” causing a shift in the groups or the tone of the conversations. Ours was a family that spent a lot of time together anyway, a traditional, typical Italian family, but holidays were still special. We were One, with a capital “O,” and that was manifest in our holiday gatherings.

But alas, things change. People get married, they move away, they have new families to share or start new traditions. Personalities grate on each other, old family spats become full-blown feuds. Family members die and new ones are born. Nothing is ever the same again. But my Christmas memories are with me all the time and have influenced every day of my life. That looks so melodramatic in print but, really, those memories have taught me some very important life lessons.

Family is the root of all happiness. My family doesn’t have to be perfect and doesn’t have to fit into someone else’s notion of a family. We can be related by blood or by choice. We are who we are and I love us, warts and all.

I don’t have to have a lot of money or a lot of things to be happy. Sometimes not having it all makes for the most special memories. Making the best of what we have creates an opportunity to show our love and commitment to our family in way that is most meaningful – with our words, actions and deeds instead of some store-bought trinket that will be lost or broken long before our memory of those magical moments fade.

My Christmas memories have so much less to do with the gifts I received or gave as the feelings I remember. Oh, I remember the tape recorder and the ping pong table and the bikes. I remember making a robe for my Dad when I was ten and finding that special porcelain coffee set for my grandmothers when I was twelve. But more than that, I remember the joy and love that has remained in my life all these forty-nine Christmases and every day in-between. I hope I have instilled those same feelings in my children and the friends I’ve had along the way. I hope I have forty-nine more Christmases to make even more wonderful Christmas memories.

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