Everyone talks about their holiday traditions. And every family has them. And they’re all different. But what are mine? Do I have any traditions?
I think most people’s definition of “True Christmas” comes mainly from childhood memories. We want Christmas to be like they were back in the good old days when we were kids, with just a touch of our parent’s version of what Christmas should be thrown in the mix because things always sounded so simple and joyous when our parents talk about THEIR childhood Christmas. This almost always means that we’re disappointed by Christmas Present because the memory of Christmas Past is always lurking over us, saying things like, “In MY day we used to sit around the fireplace and hand-carve our very own ornaments every Christmas Eve.” Well, this year we’re sitting around the X-Box instead…
On my parent’s tree every year there lives a few ornaments that Pa made out of styrofoam, fishing line, and a few shiny beads back when he was a boy. I always pictured him sitting at Gramp’s feet as a child, happily whittling delicate ornaments out of a styrofoam block, watching the snow fall gracefully outside the window, Bible open to the story of Christ’s birth… Oddly enough, when I see this in my head, it’s always in black and white, and everyone has halos. I imagine in reality the day those ornaments were made was probably as loud and confused and squabbly as any other day on the farm. And it was probably in color.
My parents talk about how much they enjoyed singing and going to church when they were children at Christmas. That’s what they remember. That’s the measuring stick they use to judge Christmas Present. Me, I remember things different.
We moved to the farm the summer after I turned four years old. The first Christmas season I actually remember was at the farm… I remember the linoleum that used to be in the living room. I used to lay on the floor (there was carpet later) on winter days and watch the sunbeams come through the fancy window, glorying in the discovery of how the cut glass created a rainbow of color when the sun hit it a certain way. I’d watch the prism of color on the floor, noticing how it moved over time… It only happened in winter – during the summer the tree outside the window blocked the sun from that particular window – and that made it magic. When Christmas got close, the tree went up in front of the magic window, but sometimes you could still see the rainbow prism as the light cut through the colored glass…
I remember acres and acres and acres of snow with no muddy footprints. I remember making snow caves.
When I got a few years older and had to go to school, I remember being mildly confused by the darkness. I had to ride the school bus; it was often dark when I struggled through the snow up the lane to meet the bus, and it was usually dark by the time I got home after school and finished my chores. The world seemed like a dark, cold place, full of frozen pipes and worries about livestock. I remember thinking that they put Christmas at the end of December just to give people something to look forward to in the darkness.
It was about that time that I noticed that my parents always put the tree up in the same place every year. A tradition! The fake fireplace with it’s single light bulb illuminating strings of tin foil, however, was in a different place every year. Gramma and Grampa Radloff moved to town and always put their tree in the “other room.” Gramma and Grampa Jeys moved their tree around – some years it was in a corner, other years in front of the big window. Grampa Jeys always made a production of putting the tree up, and always made it a point to include us poor grandkids whether we wanted to be included or not. (Grampa enjoyed playing with us kids, and truly wanted to let us help, but it always ended being grumpy Grampa putting the tree up with nervous grandkids trying to find the right branches to hand him. It was always a little tense. But it was a tradition! And I miss it.)
As a child Christmas started December 1st. That’s when the “Christmas Countdown Calendar” was hung on the door so we’d always know how many days left until the big day. Pops would get the wooden Santa out of storage (he kept it in the garage) and would put it on the roof of our house, strapped to the chimney. It was also about that time that the big Sears catalog would come in the mail, too, with it’s ten or twelve pages of toys somewhere about three-quarters the way to the back. Every day I’d stare at that catalog and dream of how I’d be so happy if I could play with those toys… I’d helpfully put a mark by the toys I wanted, and I’d be sure to leave the catalog open to that page so the parents would see. The next day I’d go find the catalog again and thoughtfully mark a few more toys…
I remember one year I strayed from the Sears catalog and got suckered by a television commercial (I don’t even remember if this was a Christmas gift or a birthday, to be honest). It was a lesson well learned in any case, but rather painful… Dick Van Dyke, from “Mary Poppins” fame, the guy in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” hero to small children everywhere, came on TV one day in a commercial and said that he had a lot of fun playing Chutes Away – a game where you peered through a little viewfinder at a rolling landscape and tried to drop little plastic bombs into little plastic bomb craters. I wanted that game! I wanted it, I wanted it, I wanted it. And I wanted it loudly. For weeks and weeks I loudly wanted that game. I actually went to sleep dreaming of that game, picturing myself flying through the clouds like Superman (just take three steps, hold your arms just so, and jump), zipping here and there, diving playfully at the cows in the field, and at the very proper precise moment dropping my little plastic bomb just exactly right so it would land RIGHT where I wanted… I dreamt of being a pilot of a very small, very agile airplane, soaring. I dreamt of piloting a very large airplane. For weeks and weeks I flew.
The big day came. Presents were opened with glee! But, you know, I didn’t see any presents there that were big enough to contain my dream. Presents were opened with desperation now. With each shred of wrapping paper I saw my chances of being a pilot dwindle… When the last very small gift was presented to me, WAY too small to hold a Chutes Away game, I was actually sullen. After the gifts were done I sulked. A child who just opened a whole passel of gifts, sulking. Head hung low, kicking at the floor, feeling sorry for myself, I sulked my way into the kitchen. My dad quietly pointed to the corner by the refrigerator. There was THE PACKAGE! I knew it had to be the game – it was the right size!
And, by golly gee whiz, it WAS the game!
I tore the box open, grabbed the batteries and ran into the other room to set it all up. This game, this one toy, of all the toys in the world, was endorsed by Dick Van Dyke! The man who held tea parties whilst floating in mid-air. The man who built a flying car. That man likes to play THIS game! Oh boy oh boy oh boy…
Stupid game was done in forty-five seconds. It was the most miserable chunk of plastic I’d ever played. For one thing, I thought it was going to be made of metal and wood like toys USED to be, not cheap plastic and cardboard. And all it did was repeat itself over and over, making a noise that scared the dog. The little bombs got stuck in the little fakey airplane. In less than half an hour the game was back in its box and I spent the rest of the day in quiet reflection.
I’ve never quite trusted Dick Van Dyke since then.
But I’ll never forget that Ma & Pa went out and spent twenty bucks (or whatever) on a game for their ingrate son even though money was tight.
Anyway, back to the main point of this post… When I think of Christmas as a child, I think of visits to the grandparents’ houses, Christmas trees with lots of presents under ’em, darkness (it seems like it was always dark) and cold lit by fancy street lights in the bigger towns. It was always snowy when I was a kid.
Once I got into my twenties, Christmas changed a bit. I couldn’t very well spend days and days laying on my stomach, peering under the Christmas tree, dreaming of toys… I always managed to make my way to the family farm on Christmas day, though. I think I put up a Christmas tree of my own once or twice, but it just didn’t seem right, being single with no kids. Christmas was, for a time, simply a month off of college where I had to work instead of study. My National Guard unit would have a Christmas drill every year where we could invite our families to come and sit with us for a few hours. I always had to play my trombone in at least two Christmas concerts – one for the college wind ensemble, and it seemed I always got conned into playing for some brass quartet or another. I remember thinking one year that it sure seemed like I had to dress pretty all the time in December.
I remember being amazed when I got my first “real” job that we only got one day off for Christmas. For some reason I was expecting to get the whole week off between Christmas and New Years. I was crushed. Welcome to adulthood. (In fact, if I remember right, I actually had to work a few hours on Christmas day the first year or two at my present job.)
Christmas had turned into something other people do. Not me. I’d see Christmas on TV, starting sometime in September, then it’d snow a day or two before Christmas, and I’d go to the farm on the one day off I got, hand out my gifts of beer and M&M’s and fall asleep on the couch. I was always happy that Ma would put the Christmas tree up, the magic window still created a prism, the old ornaments always made an appearance… Tradition.
At the grand old age of 32 I met Dagmar and bought a house. Our first Christmas we talked quite a bit about starting new traditions, and talked of what our families found important to do on the holidays. We bought a few Christmas knick-knacks and finagled a plastic Christmas tree from someone. We thought happy thoughts.
Sometime in that first December we moved the couch over a bit and put the recliner on the porch to make room for our first Christmas tree. I really wanted Dagmar to help, but it ended up being a grumpy hippie putting the tree up with a nervous wife trying to find the right branches… (Just when did I become Grampa?) But we got the tree put together, and I sat and watched my elegant and graceful wife wrap the tree in garland and lights, then carefully, so carefully putting up our very own ornaments! In addition to the very few ornaments we’d both collected over the years, we had a box of red silk Christmas apples that we hung amongst the garland and lights (I guess in Austria apples are a Christmas thing). We sat for a moment, reflecting that we’d started our own traditions. The tree goes HERE. And THESE are OUR ornaments, and it’s good. “Um,” I said. “Where’s Fruitloop, anyway?” We both glanced quickly around the living room, trying to spot the kitten. “Oh NO!” shouted my elegant and graceful wife, diving for the falling tree. “Your stupid cat is in the tree!” We pulled the cat out of the tree and got it standing upright again.
Turns out that cats are fascinated by little red silk Christmas apple ornaments. The whole night we sat guard on the tree, swatting the poor kitten on the nose with a newspaper every time he so much as looked at the tree.
The next day I came home from work only to find the tree on the ground, broken ornaments in the rug, and a sobbing wife. “I tried SO HARD to make a nice tree, und dis dumbo cat broke everything!” I consoled the wife, righted the tree, swatted the cat… By the end of the day the cat had knocked the tree over two more times. No matter how I propped the tree the cat found a way to make it fall.
My wife cried a lot that year.
The next year we had a real live dead tree! That was exciting. I wrote a fairly entertaining post about it last year that you can read HERE. Suffice it to say, that was the last year we had a tree. (I still have a mental picture of my wife, dressed entirely in black, dragging a Christmas tree up the street on the Fourth of July… You really gotta read the post.)
We haven’t decorated for Christmas since then. It’s just not worth the tears.
The past few years we have settled into traditions – they’re just not our own, that’s all. On Christmas Eve we always went to Dagmar’s mother’s house. We drank warm “grog” (some concoction of fruit juice and rum), read from the Bible, sang songs (some in English, most in German) whilst Mama K played the accordion, and exchanged gifts. Some time during the day, Dagmar and Mama K always called their family in Austria, where the phone would be passed from person to person, each wanting to share some little piece of holiday cheer. The holiday meal took a while for me to get used to – fondue! Ma and Pa used to dig the fondue kettle out once in a while when I was a lad, but I guess I never thought of it as a holiday tradition… Mama K always makes up five or six specialty sauces and cuts up some fillet Mignon and some chicken for us to cook. It’s good! A rare treat indeed.
On Christmas Day we always go to the family farm, where we watch my brother’s kids go through the same routines we did as children. It’s fun to watch small children on Christmas! Especially as the children in question aren’t mine…
I wonder if they’ve ever noticed the magic window… I hope so.
The kids enjoy the presents, we enjoy watching the kids and looking at Ma’s Christmas stuff, then we all go eat too much, and it’s all good.