A thought on the importance of spending the Christmas holidays with your family.
| Right up until lung cancer slowed my mother down in 1997, at the age of 78, our family’s Christmas holiday always followed the same routine for as long as I could remember, yes. But it also showed the closeness of the family, and held surprises for the youngsters. Like me. I never tired of that ‘routine’, and never forgot it.
It is my hope that by sharing that ‘routine’, and what came later, that the reader will have a new appreciation for their own Christmas traditions, and especially for those individuals with whom they spend this special holiday.
Christmas Eve, any year between 1948 and 1996. Our tree is up as always, in the living room, centered in the picture window. We’d all helped put it up, as always. Mom, dad, my two younger sisters and myself. For around the first 17 years of that time, the tree was an artificial one that had been our tree ever since I could remember. It was nothing like the artificial trees of today; it was much more realistic. Sharp evergreen ‘needles’ included.
The best things about that tree, for me, were always:
One, it could be easily handled as all one piece. The limbs easily folded upward against the trunk, and a cover placed over the entire tree, which would then be stored in a corner of the basement until it was brought out the next year. None of this futile effort of trying to get the separate sections of a tree back into the box in which it came as is the case today.
Two, the tree was very expertly pre-wired. Sockets for bulbs were firmly attached to the end of each limb; the wire ran along the underside of each limb, out of sight, and even more hidden once the trimmings were all in place.
Three. Christmas tree bulbs they don’t make any more - candle shapes, in many colors, complete with the tip of the wick shape at the top of each bulb. I always liked the look of the candle bulbs in that tree. Very symbolic of the season.
Four. The colorful, circular ceramic base, with red and green flower pedals cast around its perimeter and a light socket for either matching or contrasting colored bulbs in the center of each flower. The base, too, was permanently pre-wired. And being cast in heavy ceramic material it could not be tipped over. And with three young kids, that was a big advantage.
I always loved that tree. The wiring finally wore out, though, and the tree was no longer safe to use. I have the base, and only need to take the time to rewire it so it can be restored to its former glory (it shorted out some years ago but is still otherwise in excellent condition).
The tree had been up for about a week. About 6:30 PM that Christmas Eve, we piled in the car, and began our annual journey.
First stop, my aunt Ina and uncle Harry’s house in Madisonville. Aunt Ina was one of my mom’s sisters. That stop meant a good bit of fun. Trading presents with each of three nieces and one nephew as well as Ina and Harry was always interesting. Not to mention the curiosity of wondering what their outdoor light display would look like each year. Uncle Harry was an electrician by trade, and made use of that with numerous changes to his outdoor display each year. It wasn’t necessarily elaborate as many are today, but it was always different from year to year. After a good bit of sharing about the holidays and other family issues, we packed up the gifts we’d been given in the car, jumped in and continued our journey.
Second stop was at my aunt Phil and uncle Milt’s house. Aunt Phil was my dad’s sister. Visiting them was always one of my favorite things to do, Christmas or not. Uncle Milt’s sense of humor was extremely sharp, and I love the way he kept me on my toes in our one-liner exchanges. Always have, always will. The really interesting thing with them was that they were Jewish, yet every year they put up a Christmas tree, and exchanged presents with us, and likely a number of other friends and relatives. After a wonderful visit lasting about an hour, we loaded the presents we received from them in the car with the others, and headed off for the final stop of the evening.
About a half hour later, usually around 8:00 P.M. or so, we arrived at my grandmother and aunt Cindy’s apartment. Cindy was mom’s other sister. Grandma and Cindy now lived in the first floor apartment I’d grown up in as a child. Dad had bought the place a year or so before I was born; a brown shingled 2-apartment conventional-looking house in Norwood. I remember helping him convert the third floor attic space into another apartment when I was younger.
After our usual greetings, we put the presents we had for grandma and Cindy under their table-top tree in the solarium. Yep, the solarium. They don’t build houses with those anymore. They should. They’re nice, cozy little rooms with lots of windows and lots of light, letting in the sun all around. Hence, the name, solarium. Theirs was right on the front of the house. When you arrived on their front porch and entered, you walked right into the solarium, and from there to the living room.
After putting the presents under the tree and our coats on aunt Cindy’s bed in the back bedroom, we got down to the typical chatting, waiting for the others to arrive. The stop at grandma and Cindy’s was our families’ gathering time for the Christmas holiday. Grandma and Cindy periodically checked on the progress of the meal in the kitchen, and not long after they’d done that only a couple times, aunt Ina, uncle Harry, and their kids arrived.
Once the meal was ready, we sat down to a marvelous feast of ham and/or turkey, green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, and an extra side dish that changed every year.
When we were all done eating, each of us kids got to pick one gift to open that night. The rest had to wait till Christmas morning. After sharing the laughter and joy of that moment, and having a bit of cake or pie for desert, we left for home.
Having the family gathering on Christmas Eve left each branch of the family free to celebrate their own Christmas that special morning, and that was always neat, too. Opening the gifts from not only mom, dad and Santa, but from the other relatives, made for an even longer present-unwrapping time early that following morning. Breakfast often - no, usually - waited until everything had been unwrapped, with dad taking home movies of the entire event almost every year.
They always say that “Time flies when you’re having fun”, and that “Time waits for no man.” But you never think much about it until it happens to you. That’s when you get the wake up call - because things start changing. In any number of ways. In short:
That wonderful, so-authentic artificial Christmas tree finally wore out. I can’t remember the last year we still had any of those candle-shaped bulbs that are still not made anymore.
My aunt Phil eventually developed an inoperable brain tumor. I saw the slow, steady deterioration of her condition over the passage of what I believe was a year or two. My uncle Milt eventually made the tough decision that he could no longer take care of her himself, and placed her in a nursing home facility. I think she died less than a year later. Milt never remarried; I didn’t think he would.
At 17, I fell in love. My parents were suddenly different people. They didn’t want me in a committed relationship till after college. They “pulled out all the stops” to keep Linda and I apart, even prohibiting me from seeing her at all once I started college at 18. Seems they had my life all mapped out for me, and expected me to just go along with their plan. I couldn’t help but think mom’s prejudices had a part in that. She’d always been something of a female Archie Bunker, and also always looked down on people with problems. So, I had to think that the fact that Linda was an epileptic had something to do with mom’s attitude here, though I couldn’t prove that except for a single comment my dad would make during that time. .
Even though the legal age in my state then was 21, I found I had options, even at 18. In 1967 I moved out of the house, dropped out of college for the moment (I went back later on my own), and got a job. With mom and dad no longer supporting me they couldn’t legally touch me or keep their control over my life. I have never had any regrets about that decision. In 1968, a year after Linda graduated high school, we eloped. All of this, our life together, is another story, already written.
When grandma became too old for the family thing on Christmas Eve, it was moved to our house. Dad or mom would drive to Norwood, pick up both grandma and aunt Cindy, and bring them over for the evening, then take them home afterward. Mom handled the cooking.
A small number of years later, my mother and aunt Ina had a major disagreement over how my grandmother should be taken care of in her old age. They didn’t speak to each other for years. The Christmas Eve tradition was kept, even though it was just my immediate family doing it now, though for the three years immediately following my marriage Linda and I were not there either. My mother had flatly stated that she didn’t want Linda in their house. I was more than happy to oblige the request. Linda and I had wonderfully quiet, romantic Christmas Eves of our own , or spent that time with her family. Christmas Day was always spent with her family, by choice. Her parents became my parents in many ways after my parents had shut us out by ignoring Linda. Those three years later, and only after a tongue lashing from my cousin in California (aunt Cindy’s son), mom and dad allowed Linda into their home and we rejoined the Christmas Eve celebration.
I can’t remember the year, but at some point during that time, my grandmother passed away at the age of 99.
In March, 1980, while I wasn’t home, Linda had a seizure and struck her head on the tile wall in our bathroom. She died instantly. At her visitation, mom walked up to me and said quietly, “Jimmie, I just want to tell you that I might have been wrong about Linda.” I just said, “Thanks, mom.” I wasn’t in the mood to discuss propriety with her just then, and I wasn’t going to let her spoil the wonderful feelings I was getting from the huge line of those who had come to pay their respects. Linda’s parents were nothing short of totally amazed and awed at the line, considering how few friends and acquaintances she’d had in high school because of her seizures. They loved seeing how many friends Linda had found in her all too short life.
My world was in turmoil for months after Linda’s death, with only the faith in God that Linda and I had shared keeping me going.
Also in 1980, about October, I think, aunt Cindy died of cancer. She’d been a heavy smoker, and not one to make regular doctor visits. By the time it was discovered, it had spread throughout her body and had become only a matter of time. I lost my best confidant, one of my best friends, and a very wise counselor. It had been Cindy that told me once, as we talked about mom’s controlling attitude toward my life, and toward the relationship with Linda, “Your mom is better equipped to run a business. She doesn’t know how to raise kids.”
In 1997, my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. That fact made her and aunt Ina wise up and forget their differences over grandma’s care. They started talking again, regularly, and frequently. Mom died in late January, 1998, at the age of 78. Beginning that year, the oldest of my two younger sisters and her husband took over hosting the Christmas Eve gathering at their house. By then, my cousins and their families had each developed their own Christmas Eve traditions, so the gathering at my sister's has always been fairly small.
By the end of 2001, I believe it was, both aunt Ina and uncle Harry had also passed away from cancer, in that order, roughly a year apart. Ina, like my mother and aunt Cindy, had been a heavy smoker. Harry never smoked; we just figured it was the second hand smoke from aunt Ina’s habit that eventually caught up with him. My cousins have since sold the house in Madisonville where they grew up since they all had families of their own by then.
About 2004, my dad sold the house I’d grown up in since 6th grade, moving into a condo on the west side of town with his new lady friend. Shortly prior to that sale, he’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
I’ve remarried, and my wife and I have our own Christmas Eve and Christmas Day activities. And, we both have memories of past Christmases in our lives, often sharing those memories with each other. And when we do that, it reminds me of those bygone days, like I described above, when the family unit was the most important thing in our lives.
Don’t let the nature of today’s society as a whole rob you, and your family of the wonderful feelings, memories and events that can be shared all year long, but especially at this time of year. If you’re not doing it already, get back in the habit of having supper as a family each evening, and doing things throughout the year as a family, including each and every holiday as it comes. If you have older kids away at college, or with families of their own, agree who will host the gathering for a given year, and make sure everyone is there. Build your own memories, individually and as a family, and help your kids, especially the younger ones, build theirs as they grow up. Teach them the importance of family, and family values so that all of you can help each other deal with the changes that will inevitably come in your lives, and help each other also keep alive those memories from years before, passing on those memories, and the lessons they carry, to the kids as well.
“There’s always next year” won’t always be a true statement. Make your memories as a family while it is.