My first recollection of anything to do with Christmas is from a time when our family lived in Aroma Park, lllinois. Our house was probably not as large as I remember, but it seemed big to a toddler of 3 years old. I remember the day that Mom and Dad had gone shopping, very close to Christmas. "Going grocery shopping", they said. But we were excited that maybe there would be gift-buying, too! Doug (Dougie, at the time), our oldest brother, was the babysitter that day.
Doug had put on a red winter coat and was acting like Santa Claus, much to the delight of his younger siblings! It seems like yesterday that our parents came in the house looking very somber and sad. They told all of us that our beloved little dog, Toby, was hit by a car. I still remember Doug sliding down the doorway and collapsing onto the floor, still in that red coat. Toby was his dog, and he was gone just before Christmas. I know that sounds like a horrible memory, and I guess it is sad. But what I truly remember was a feeling of utter helplessness to help my big brother in his sorrow of losing his dear friend and companion. It was the first time that I can remember having the feeling of compassion...it was a life-lesson that is still with me.
Our next house was in Kankakee and right next door to Papa and Uncle Fritz, my mom's dad and uncle. Having holidays, and every day, with them bring many memories to mind. Some Christmas, some not. But I do remember - regretfully, to this day - the year that Mom and Dad had bought both Papa and Uncle Fritz beautiful, golden pocket watches. I was so excited that we had such special gifts for them! But in my 4-year-old-child excitement, I told them what we had bought: "I'm not supposed to tell you, but we got you pocket watches for Christmas!" Of course, Mom's glare was more than enough punishment. Papa and Uncle Fritz just acted like they didn't hear it...and feigned surprised looks when they opened them on Christmas Day.
It was also in that house that I recall one particular Christmas with another Aunt Dorothy (we actually had THREE), who was married to Dad's brother Ken. They came to our house every Christmas Eve when I was younger. They had no children of their own, and Dad was the closest relative in the area. I remember one particular Christmas Eve when Aunt Dorothy had little, tiny bell earrings on her ears. They sounded like tiny, little sleigh bells jingling (I'm not sure how they didn't bother her). When we went to bed that night, with sugarplum fairies dancing in our heads and thoughts of what Santa would leave under the tree, I swore I heard Santa's reindeer and sleighbells. Fall asleep FAST! He's here, he's here!! My siblings still tried to tell me I was only hearing Aunt Dorothy's earrings. But she was in the living room, and we were in our bedrooms! Surely, it was Santa....I still believe it was Santa!
(Side note: I grew up hearing that Dad had actually "invented" the artificial tree back when he and Mom first married. Times were tough for the young couple. Mom had to have a Christmas tree, but it was so close to the holiday that pickings were slim at the tree lot. Dad bought a cheap tree for about 25 cents...it was truly a Charlie Brown tree with sparse branches. Dad made lemonade with that lemon of a tree for Mom. He cut branches off the backside, drilled holes on the front side, and filled it in with those branches. It was propped into a corner so only the 'full' side showed! Dad said he could have retired a rich man is he would have had that idea patented.)
The house was decorated with candles, lights were hung outside on the big porch pillars, and a set of plastic lighted candles were perched on each side of our big oak front door. All the decorations were preparing for my favorite day...Christmas Eve.
Christmas Eve was the day when our house came alive with the celebration. My Dad's oldest sister, Dorothy, would always send us a care package from Hickory Farms, filled with sausages, cheeses, and candies. When the big, clear, pressed-glass punch bowl with matching cups came out, it was time for joy! It meant Mom would make her homemade, not-to-be-duplicated, eggnog with sprinklings of nutmeg on top of the whipped-to-peak-perfection egg whites. The icing on this Christmas montage was the local radio station playing non-stop Christmas Carols through midnight. The candles were lit, the tree lights were on, and no other lights allowed. A platter of Aunt Dorothy's treats - as well as trays of cookies and fruitcake and snacks - would be our feast of the night. The sounds of the radio playing those beautiful songs were only made more special, more amazing, when Mom would sing along. We might join in, if we weren't content to listen to her beautiful voice raised in song. It was just a slice of heaven on earth.
Time went on. We started growing up and moving on with our lives and our own individual family units. But Mom and Dad always made sure that we gathered together for our family Christmas. Oh, it wasn't on December 25th. But it was within a week or two of it. And it always felt just like we lived there still. As Dad aptly said in an article he wrote, "Santa had to be a woman". He said if it hadn't been for Mom, Christmas just wouldn't have been what we had grown accustomed to. Who else would take time to find the perfect gifts, wrap them so beautifully, and make sure each child's eyes opened wide with wonder and delight on that special morning.
As my sons grew up, there were many years that a small Christmas tree served as a 'night light' in their bedroom during the holidays. Of course, there was a large tree in a prominent spot in our living room. Underneath, Santa provided the gifts on the wish lists of both children. Christmas Eve was candlelit, with appetizers as the feast for the evening. Yes, some things have carried on.
Dad is now with my first Mom, as well as so many other loved ones who have left this earth. And my siblings have all spread out around the world, almost literally. Those huge three-generation family Christmas gatherings have been replaced by our own individual family festivities (and that sometimes means we have three generations or more under our own roofs). But some things, with me, remain the same.
Maybe it was fate. Maybe it was an unintentional choice. I am now married to a female Santa myself, who loves Christmas more - if it's possible - than me! She makes sure our house is filled and decorated with all things beautiful for Christmas. In fact, her designs and decor look like the pages of a home magazine layout! (The photos in this article are from our house. Amazing, don't you agree?)
And on our Christmas morning, just like throughout my entire life, the tree will have an abundance of gifts carefully chosen for each recipient. The stockings that have 'been hung by the chimney with care' will be filled with trinkets and things that, hopefully, will bring smiles to our childrens' faces.