Sooner or later the Christmas tinsel gets tangled, and the shiny new gadgets lose their appeal. What remains are the feelings of warmth and peace and conviviality experienced during the season. As I listened to a recent talk on this subject, I recalled many Christmases past, and this evening I’m lifting some lines from something I wrote four years ago for our writing group’s anthology, Serving Up Memory.
“Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, our family of six and my aunt’s family of eight gathered at my paternal grandparents’ home on Christmas Eve for a delightful evening of merry making. As the family grew, spouses and small children began making their appearance, and my grandparent’s small house seemed to be bursting at the seams. I LOVED the yearly event and began looking forward to it around Halloween.
“We listened to stories of Christmases past, caught up on each other’s lives, and filled up on the delicious victuals my grandmother had prepared. My personal favorite was a pound cake chock full of walnuts. And candy. It was sweet coconut covered with the smoothest, tastiest chocolate I’ve ever sampled. How did my grandmother get the chocolate so slick and perfect? Even today with microwaves and easily melted chocolate, my candy creations can’t compare to Beatrice’s.
“My grandparents didn’t have much money, and the only material gifts I recall receiving from them were sweaters that my grandmother had lovingly crocheted throughout the year. In later years, we all received money. It was only a few dollars, but what those dollars represented was priceless: love. Days ahead of time, my grandparents went to the bank and got enough cash to put from three to five dollars in each grandchild and great grandchild’s envelope, the kind with an oval opening in the front.
“While the gifts were appreciated, what we all treasured most was being with family. Whether sitting around the large oak table or having “side” conversations with various family members, we sensed our connection and the bond that brought us back to this same location every year. Somehow it fortified us as we separated for our individual life paths after the holiday.
“For a few years, our family lived next door to my grandparents, and at some point in the evening grown-ups began talking about where Santa was and when he’d likely arrive in Camden. Occasionally, one of them would gaze out of the window and call attention to lights in the sky directly above our house. “Are those the lights of Santa’s sleigh?” one of the adults would wonder aloud. A naïve and trusting child, I fell for the trick and was usually the first to say, “Let’s go home so he can come.”
“Christmas Day brought us back to my grandparents’ house. This time there was a real meal, a feast fit for kings with contributions from my mother and aunt. Not everyone could sit around the dining room table, and the children got relegated to the floor in an adjoining room. Did that bother us? Not one iota. We were delighted to be engaged this unusual dining situation, an indoor picnic for kids only. What are a few green beans, a little sloshed gravy, and biscuit crumbs on the floor in the grand scheme of things? What gaiety! What Christmas cheer!
“On December 24th, 1970, everything changed.
“We learned that my mother had no plans to accompany the family to her in-laws’ home for the festivities. Oblivious to goings-on and their significance, I hadn’t noticed that we had never spent a single holiday with her family. Not one. And beyond the predawn discovery of Santa’s yearly generosity, we had never spent Christmas day in our own home.
“Little did any of us realize the far-reaching ramifications of my mother’s Christmas choice. The next year all six of us made the annual Christmas Eve visit and enjoyed the sugary desserts and warm camaraderie, but the next day marked a break in tradition. My grandparents joined us at our home for Christmas dinner, my grandmother sullen and sulky and my mother happy but anxious. Although I was probably 22, I didn’t have the depth to understand the emotional undercurrents of the day. I just knew something had shifted.
“At first I missed the frenzied good cheer shared with my extended family, but that was soon overshadowed by the pride I felt in my mother for taking a stance and establishing her position as matriarch of her growing family.”