Christmas Is: Memories!

It’s a thousand million things. Things that you haven’t thought about in years come floating back because you saw a twinkling light and heard a song at just the right moment. You smelled that beautiful aroma of a favorite dish baking in preparation for your Christmas dinner and scenes from a Christmas long ago suddenly take over your thoughts.

Christmas doesn’t end just because December 26th finally intrudes. Christmas is a presence available to us all year round. We just don’t often take advantage of it after the middle of January when we are neck deep in trying to survive the dark, cold, blustery days of endless winter.

I love hearing the stories about Christmas my wife shares with me. She grew up in a wonderful family of eight children, five sisters and two brothers. She was number 7. Her dad loved Christmas and worked hard to make each one special. He often had to work on Christmas Day so opening presents was postponed until he returned, which just made the day even more special because it lasted longer than just an explosion of presents in the morning. Her older brother and married sisters arrived throughout the day with their families. Everyone pitched in to make dinner which was served after her dad arrived from work.

On Christmas Eve, after the children went to bed, my wife’s dad filled a large bowl with fruit, nuts, and candy and put it on the dining room table. Each child had a stocking, which was their dad’s white cotton work socks. Each had an orange, hard candies, and chocolate creams. Her dad decorated the outside of their house with blue lights, his favorite.

My mother was the light of Christmas when I was growing up. She made everything special. In those days, baking the turkey was an all night event, literally. She used to simmer the giblets with celery leaves and onion on Christmas Eve, which made the entire house smell of turkey. It was my job to break the dried bread apart for the stuffing. She mixed the bread pieces with egg, onion, sage, thyme, rosemary, celery, pepper and salt, then literally stuffed the turkey. I guess people don’t do that anymore because it’s “dangerous”. It’s a wonder any of us are still alive. The turkey baked all night and on Christmas day we had an amazing dinner. To this day, I remember the taste and that the turkey was always dry. But that’s why there was lots of gravy, right?

We always had fresh cranberry relish. I helped with that too. I turned the crank on the grinder that clamped to the edge of the table while my mom fed cranberries, orange, and apple into the hopper. Juice always leaked all over the floor. I never liked the relish when I was a kid, but I make it now and I love it. Another irreplaceable dish was a green-jello-cottage cheese-pineapple-I-don’t-know-what-else salad. It was great. Then there was cranberry jello (different than cranberry relish, but necessary), sweet potatoes I never liked but love now, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing (that roasted INSIDE the turkey all night and we all lived), pickles, black olives (which we never had at any other time), and rolls.

Christmas dessert was different than any other holiday, even Easter. My mom made Christmas cookies that were decorated beautifully and tasted amazing. Never saw them again for a year. There were several kinds of pies including pecan, which I never liked, but I love now. Pecan pie is a food group on its own. Just looking at it can make you gain weight. Three minutes of looking at pecan pie is 275 calories. No kidding!

How do you pronounce pecan? One time I was having dinner at a restaurant with a friend who grew up in Russia. The waitress asked if we wanted dessert and I asked for pecan pie, properly pronounced “pee-can.” My friend looked at me in shock and with his heavy Russian accent said, “Pee can? I don’t want pee can. Pee can is what you use for bathroom!” We had a good laugh and the waitress thought we were crazy. I guess the right way to say it is “pa-kahn.” Whatever. I still say pee-can pie.

Would you agree that the best part of Christmas dinner is turkey sandwiches the next day? A couple slices of white meat, Miracle Whip, lots of pepper and salt, more Miracle Whip (and not that low-cal-sugar-free stuff, either.) Spread the Miracle Whip on like you’re frosting a cake. And white bread is best. You have to have white bread because whole wheat or nut loaf won’t stick to the roof of your mouth like a good white bread turkey sandwich will.

To go with your white bread turkey sandwich, cold stuffing, jello salad, and a bowl of microwave heated mashed potatoes and gravy, and finally some of that fresh cranberry relish my mom used to make will set you up right. And to go with all of that, you have to have Vernor’s. Not Canada Dry, not Sprite, not Sierra Mist. Vernor’s. And that’s that.

It wasn’t our tradition to have a huge load of guests for dinner. Grandparents, an aunt, uncle, and cousin. That’s it. Maybe it’s because we had a small dining room which was really just part of the kitchen. I only remember going to someone else’s house for Christmas dinner one time.

One of my favorite memories was getting Christmas candy at church every year. The Sunday before Christmas everyone received a small box of candy. They were always the same, hard candies with awful filling, ribbon candy, a few peanuts, and chocolate creams. The chocolate creams and peanuts were my favorite. I still don’t like those hard candies.

When our children were young, one year my dear wife gave me a compact video camera for Christmas. I was so surprised! I still have all the video tapes and I plan to transfer them to digital format. The next Christmas I started a tradition that lasted until our boys went to college. I snuck into the kids’ rooms on Christmas Eve and taped them sleeping. I always videoed the Christmas decorations, the tree, the village, and the kids. Some of the tapes include my grandmother, who was in her nineties, sitting in a rocking chair wrapped up in blankets and a babushka.

When the boys came home from college for Christmas break I planned to video them again. They expected it and one of the boys set a booby trap in his room that scared the crap out of me.

I wish I could remember every single Christmas as our children were growing up. Thank God for pictures. We now have the joy of watching our children and their families making their own memories. We don’t make Christmas dinner anymore, we’re privileged to have our daughter and her family close by so we go to their house for Christmas. Oh we still make cranberry relish, jello, and coffee cake. But our kids host dinner. It’s always wonderful.

We now share our three boys and their families with their wives’ families. We’re happy for them, just sad for us when the in-between years come.

Christmas is three days away. It always comes and goes too fast. I have walked through the decoration displays at the stores as many times as I could. We’ve been to Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland twice, (and I hope to go again while our kids are home this week), we’ve driven to look at Christmas lights three times, we’re almost through our Christmas movie Advent calendar. We have found several great Christmas movies on Netflix and Amazon. The ongoing challenge is to make Christmas last, long, long after December 25th.

Merry Christmas to you and your family.

Christmas Is: Anticipation!

Many years ago there was a commercial showing ketchup oozing very, very slowly from the bottle and finally falling to the hamburger patiently waiting below. The song, “Anticipation” sung by Carly Simon was playing. It was a display of advertising genius. All these years later I can still see the ketchup and clearly hear the song. I don’t remember the brand name, but I do remember Anticipation.

If Christmas could be summed up in one word, a good candidate would be anticipation. Everyone likes to have something to look forward to and looking forward to Christmas captures most hearts.

When we were kids the Christmas tree was never put up until about two weeks before the special day. Almost everyone was using real trees at that time and if a tree was placed in the house just after Thanksgiving, there wouldn’t have been anything left of it by December 25th. With artificial trees, it’s easy to put the tree up even before Thanksgiving, which many people do and enjoy it for a whole month.

A problem with decorating the house and the Christmas tree too early is that after a while you don’t see it. Oh sure, it’s still there, but now the tree is part of the normal appearance of the living room or wherever you put your tree and you have to purposely stop and look at it to realize again how special it is.

Anticipation loses steam if the flame is lit too soon. When Christmas items begin to appear in the stores in late September, it’s easy to feel excited even though it’s crazy early. I enjoy going to Hobby Lobby just to walk through the aisles of decorations. I have never seen so many nutcrackers in one place in my life. I have found that if I continue to walk through and purposely look at the colors and all the many decorations even though I’ve already seen them all, I continue to feel the anticipation of Christmas.

Another challenge to anticipation is midnight on Christmas day. I’m not one of those who begins looking forward to next Christmas on December 26th but I always feel a sense of sadness when the day has passed. If that happens to you, I think the reason is focusing on the day rather than the season. Anticipation can either center on the twenty-four hour period of December 25th, or we can change it a little bit and anticipate many things during the season. For example, we anticipate decorating the Christmas tree but the tree doesn’t disappear on December 26th. We leave it up until at least a week into January. The food of the season can be anticipated in October, but when the baking begins, it’s not over, it’s just beginning.

Of course, if you are a combination of Eeyore, the donkey in Winnie the Pooh, and Mr. Snuffleupagus, from Sesame Street, like I am, feelings up and down are a constant reality and source of struggle. Finding the balance and choosing what works is the key. The Christmas season can be an emotional roller-coaster. It’s a good idea to remind ourselves it’s not our responsibility to create the perfect Christmas for everyone, or to re-create a detailed copy of everything Christmas used to be when we were growing up or when our kids were all still home waiting to open presents on Christmas morning.

Obviously, anticipation is forward-looking. You can’t anticipate something that has already happened. You might anticipate experiencing consequences tomorrow for something you did yesterday, but simple anticipation is always about something that hasn’t happened yet.

Maybe you don’t anticipate Christmas at all, in fact you would be fine if it never happened. It’s fine to feel that way, I’m persuaded you’re not alone. However, you are still anticipating Christmas, but it’s dread, negative rather than positive. And really, there are lots of reasons one might dread the whole Christmas season.

I completely agree with what Fred, Ebenezer Scrooge’s nephew, said to him as he pleaded with him to come for Christmas dinner. He said that even though Christmas never adds a speck of silver or gold to his pocket he believes it does him good and to that he says, “God bless it!” I do too.

Christmas Is: Movies!

Advent calendars are popular and there are endless varieties. We decided several years ago to use our Christmas movies as an advent calendar, which means we have at least twenty-five Christmas movies. And with so many streaming channels the offerings are non-stop. Just this week we watched “Christmas on the Bayou”, “Christmas in Mississippi”, and “The Christmas Contract”.

Our favorite movies are so familiar we really don’t need to watch them. We can quote the lines just by thinking of the title. You can too. For example,

”I wouldn’t let you sleep in my room if you were growing on my a**.” Of course you know the movie.

How about, “Thanks for the Christmas card you sent me, Violet!” Sure you know that one, you’ve been watching it every year since 1965.

This might be a little more difficult, “Hey Mack, can you tell me the way to Redbud?”

”How’d you know my name was Mack?”

”Just a guess.”

”Why don’t you guess your way to Redbud?”

Maybe you’ll do better on this one. “Coming into Pine Tree! Coming into Pine Tree.”

No? Well, how about, “If the United States Post Office believes Kris Kringle is the real Santa Clause, we agree. Case dismissed!”

Maybe this will ring a silver bell, “The Rose Suchick Ladder Company.”

Doing better? Try, “Me? You want me to be the director of the Christmas play?”

Another, “You wouldn’t happen to have eight thousand dollars would you?”

”No, we don’t need money in Heaven.”

”Well it sure comes in handy down here, Bub!”

This one is too easy, “Why’d you take your shoes off?” “Why are you dressed like a chicken?”

This is getting ridiculously easy now, “Oh no! No one’s leaving this fun old fashioned family Christmas! We’re gonna press on and have the hap-hap-happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny Kaye!”

Are you feeling pretty confident? Try this, “George Bailey, I’ll love you till the day I die.”

A little more difficult, “Label-label-label, I must have a label!” “I feel light as a feather, I’m giddy as a school boy! I must stand on my head!”

How about, “That was the dumbest speech ever! It was short. We loved it!!”

Obviously, some of these are in the same movies, like, “I knew it was you. I could smell you getting off the elevator.”

And, “Keep the change ya filthy animal.”

And, “We bein’ scammed by a kindy-gadna.”

From a different one, “I wish I had a million dollars. Ah, hot dog!”

And another favorite, “You don’t honestly believe I would check ten-thousand twinkle lights without making sure they were plugged in.”

Everyone will know this, “Lights please. And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shown round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you. Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men.’”

Merry Christmas everyone. Enjoy your favorite Christmas movies, whatever they are, but especially, the time you spend with family watching them.

Still wondering about some of the movie lines? Here they are, in order. And yes, I wrote each of these from memory. Movie lines is a favorite game we play with our family.

Home Alone
A Charlie Brown Christmas
Funny Farm
White Christmas
Miracle on 34th Street
The Santa Clause
A Charlie Brown Christmas
It’s A Wonderful Life
Home Alone
Christmas Vacation
It’s a Wonderful Life
Scrooge (With Alastair Sim)
The Muppet Christmas Carol
Home Alone 2
Home Alone
It’s a Wonderful Life
Christmas Vacation
A Charlie Brown Christmas (Luke 2:8-14)