Everyone has them, those special things that make Christmas what it is. They may change over time but they are there nonetheless.
I remember Christmas mornings, lying in bed waiting for Mom and Dad to wake up so we could all run down to the living room to see what Santa brought. Time passed so slowly those cold crisp mornings, unlike other days when Mom had to pry us out of bed for breakfast and boarding the bus for school. We could hardly stand it. Mom and Dad’s room was between the bedroom that my brother and I shared and the living room so it was impossible to sneak past them to spy what was under the tree. There was a second route through the kitchen and the dining room but we dared not try it for fear of discovery.
Finally, there was a stirring in their room and we would all be out like a flash to check out what Santa brought while Mom dashed off to the kitchen to make breakfast. Then it was off to church where I would sit in the choir loft looking down through the golden light of the early morning on my family and the rest of the congregation dressed up in their finest.
After Mass, it was round two of presents, the wrapped ones. These were from each of us to the others as opposed to Santa’s unwrapped offerings. Among those gaily wrapped packages were the ones that were to our cousins, aunts and uncles. They were put aside for later when our extended family would gather for ham, turkey and all the fixin’s, (that’s southern for stuffing, rice and gravy, beans ETC.) After the big meal, while the tryptophan was wearing off, there was the grand gift exchange. I must admit that most of the gifts in this exchange were clothing items, especially as we all grew older. And I might add, gain a higher appreciation for clothes.
By the time I reached the 7th and 8th grade, the timetable flipped. By then I was a senior altar boy and my presence was required at Midnight Mass. It was so cool to be up late on Christmas Eve and put on the red cassocks and the fancy surplices. My last year as an altar boy, the surplice was replaced by a cape with fringes. We thought we were cool then. Before you start thinking, what an innocent scene that might have been, I need to let you know that from my vantage point on the altar, I could check out my female classmates all dressed up to the nines in their Christmas finest. I can tell you that as pretty as they were in class; they really knocked my socks off at Christmas time. Hey, don’t forget that I was a teen-aged boy, of course I looked.
Midnight Mass gave us the opportunity to sleep in a little later on Christmas. I rarely woke before Mom and Dad in those years. Into the living room for Santa, then a leisurely breakfast, family gift exchange and then off for the big meal. By the time we were in high school, a new Christmas tradition started; pizza at my cousin’s house after Midnight Mass. That meant getting to bed around 3 am or later. This tradition stayed around through my college years.
After college with each of us developing new traditions with our in-laws, the big extended family gathering at Christmas began to slowly fade. But I remember those like they were yesterday. As I sat here writing this, a rather poignant memory came to mind. My niece and her cousin who were both around five at the time would come up to me and ask me to spin them around. I would spin them one after another until I got too dizzy to continue. They would beg for more but alas, after fewer and fewer spins each year I could not continue. These days, they could probably spin me around more easily that I could spin them. I wonder if they spin their daughters around like I used to spin them.
Between the late 60s and when Mom passed in 2004, we would travel to Jacksonville during the holiday period, sometimes for Christmas and sometimes for New Years. When we were there for Christmas we would always go to Midnight Mass and be part of the extended family gathering the next day. One year sticks out in my mind, 1989. The plan was to drive to Jacksonville on the 23rd and back to Columbia on the 26th. But something unprecedented happened. You see, that was an unusual weather year; Hurricane Hugo slammed the South Carolina Coast and wiped the smug assumption that we did not have to worry much about hurricanes here in Columbia right out of our heads. As we were packing for the trip we started hearing reports of snow and ice from the Low Country of South Carolina all the way down I-95 to Jacksonville. As the interstate became impassable, we were forced to postpone our trip down until New Years. So this is how, my home town came to have their one and only White Christmas while I have yet to see one.
This year, one more life long tradition is ending; the live Christmas Tree! Like other years, we purchased a live tree. For the past dozen or so, we would go with friends to a Christmas tree farm and cut the tree ourselves. Our friends were not able to participate in the tradition this year. This year we chose one from a Christmas tree lot near our grocery store. We needed to cut down a fresh tree because being purists; we kept our tree up until the Twelfth Day of Christmas, which is Epiphany, January 6th. This year, after putting our tree in a bucket of water, we realized that we no longer had a place for the tree because of a new piece of furniture in the living room. So a new tradition begins; three small desk top artificial trees in the living room and a live tree complete with lights near the modest light display on our front porch railing and light post.
So, I’m sitting in my easy chair watching the stories about snarled airline travel and highways clogged with travelers and snow on the nightly news. I realize that there is not a little knot in the bottom of my stomach worrying about getting out there in that mess. That is kinda nice. I’ll just recline in the chair and wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Oh MY!