Christmas memories and holiday traditions

In conversations with friends, I am struck by the variety of ways in which people celebrate Christmas.

For some, Christmas is invariably spent at home with direct members of the family.  For others, it’s a time to visit with friends and see as many relatives as possible.

Some people have big feasts, and some people have light dinners.

Some go to church, some don’t.

My ex-husband’s family had many traditions I found curious and fascinating.  A family of Italians, they would prepare and eat a feast of seven seafood dishes on Christmas Eve. They also opened their presents on Christmas Eve.  Everything they did, they did as a family.

One friend and her husband go to the movies all day long.

The Christmas memories of my childhood have shaped the way I celebrate the holiday with my own son.

Growing up, I was often in theatrical productions around Christmas.  I had been acting in plays and musicals in Richmond since I was six years old.  For three Christmases running, I performed in a Christmas Carol as one of the Cratchits.  The theater people were my best friends.  We celebrated; we went caroling in our Dickensian costumes.  There was usually a performance on Christmas Eve, and I can remember how exciting it felt to me to be part of the audience’s Christmas celebration.  The best Christmases of my life were those.

My mom was a single mom all of my childhood, and she did a wonderful job of trying to make Christmas special for us.  But she was often tense and unhappy during the holidays.  I am sure she felt the pressure of the holidays, and I suppose she missed my Dad, and her mother, who had died.  So, the theater at Christmas was an important outlet for me, a source of joy, really, when I needed it the most.

After my performance, on Christmas Eve, we went to the elegant home of one of my mother’s friends, who had a lavish party that  evening.  She was a woman who was gracious in everything she did, warm and friendly, and not the least bit condescending to us, which was saying something in a town very much consumed with status and social rank.

She had studied cooking in France, and was a professional interior decorator,  so her house was lovely, and the food was delicious.  On a table cloth shining with china and silver were delicacies such as liver pate and truffles, beef tenderloin, and French cheeses.  We didn’t have much money growing up, so I was a little awed at the sumptuous buffet.

Her guests were museum curators, professors, artists, and other interesting people with refined manners.  I felt honored to be included among her guests, and she made a nice fuss over us when we came in the door.  Santa generally made a quick visit and distributed candy canes to everyone.

Everyone wore their most beautiful clothes and the room sparkled with candlelight.  She had the largest Christmas tree I had ever seen.   It would have been impossible to count its exquisite and varied ornaments.  It was a feast for the senses.

Around 11 or so, many of the guests would get ready to leave for midnight mass at one of the two historic Episcopal churches nearby.  So, she would end the party by turning up the stereo quite loud, and distributing lyrics, and encouraging everyone to sing “Joy to the World” at the top of their voices.  Her enthusiasm was so infectious, it would have been impossible not to join in.  She did this every year, and it always put me in the holiday spirit.

We would also stop at the smaller party of another friend of my mother’s, who was just as kind to us, and who always made sure we felt welcome and gave us nice things to eat.

I was the only church-goer in my family of three.  When I was a young woman, I would sometimes convince my tired mother and sister to go to church that night, and the midnight mass was lovely.  But when we were younger children, we went home to our apartment to bed.  My mom would turn on the television in the living room so she could listen to the Pope’s midnight mass message.  She wasn’t Catholic; she just liked the Pope.  My sister and I would go to bed and try not to hear my mom’s last-minute rustlings and wrappings as she got ready for Christmas.

In the morning, my sister and I would go for stockings first.  There was an orange in our stockings and we usually ate that right away.  My mom used to make Pillsbury sweet rolls (the orange frosted kind) and sometimes cocoa.  I can remember stirring our cocoa with a peppermint stick.  Then with nuts and candy from our stocking, that was our breakfast.

Sometimes, about every other year or so, I would see my father, and when my paternal grandparents were alive for the short time while I was young, we would go to visit them in their home, but these visits were fairly short and for a child like myself, not very rewarding.  Our paternal grandparents had already become attached to and lost two grandchildren they loved very dearly, the children of my father from a previous marriage, and they probably found it hard to be warm and loving to us, after that experience.  My father drank, and he was usually drunk on Christmas.  Still, I was happy to have a chance to see him for a little while, and I got a present and a hug from him.

Then, we would go to my grandfather’s house, where we stayed until at least 6 or 7 pm, as we did every Sunday, Christmas, and Easter.  (My grandmother had died before I was born.)  His wife and her extended family would be there.  My grandpa put out a rather Southern lunch buffet (turkey, fried chicken, Smithfield ham biscuits, baked beans, deviled eggs, shrimp, fruitcake, chocolates)  and many people, mostly older people, came all day long to eat, drink, smoke cigarettes (everyone seemed to smoke back then) and visit with him — his friends, extended family.  They talked about the restaurant business, football, and horse racing. There was a tree, but not much beauty in it, and no Christmas music at all.  It wasn’t much fun for me.  They weren’t unkind, but they showed very little interest in me and my sister, and I suppose we had little in common with them.  I don’t remember my grandfather’s wife saying more than a few words to me all the years I knew her.  It was rare that we were even offered a glass of water.  I suppose we were simply unnoticed.  My sister and I had our toys to play with and we read my grandpa’s copies of Time Magazine and anything else we could find to read to pass the time.  I loved his Labrador dog, Corky, and would pet him, or walk him in the small backyard.  It was a grown-up time, those visits, and we were expected to be quiet and to behave ourselves, to rise when guests came and left, and to be a credit to our family.  Before we left, I would get an embrace from my grandpa, usually some money, and of course, a Christmas present, and then Mom would drive back home, quiet and sullen from the visit.

After my grandfather died, when I was twenty, Christmas Day became more relaxed.  We didn’t have a big Christmas dinner, like some families do.  We snacked on cheese and crackers, and played Christmas music.  I remember a friend came over and we played Trivial Pursuit and that was one of the more fun Christmas Days I can remember.  And then I was twenty-three and married, and I had my own family with whom to celebrate Christmas.

Now that it is just me and my son, it is up to me to set my own Christmas traditions.  Things are different, of course, because I am divorced and I have Christmas with my son every other year.  But I try to make Christmas special.

I would say our Christmas celebrating starts in early December.  Also, we celebrate Christmas through Epiphany (January 6), which is also known as The Twelve Days of Christmas.  So all of our Christmas decorations stay up, and we play music and celebrate, through that day.

January 6 is celebrated as King’s Day in France, where I lived for a short time, and we usually have a King’s cake, although it’s a made up one and not a the luscious pastry affair you find in France.

One thing you will notice about my house, apart from the three Christmas trees, is that we play music on the stereo.  My son and I are both fond of music and we both like to sing!  We like pop, jazz, classical, rhythm and blues, alternative, oldies.  We have lots of Christmas albums, everything from George Shearing and Nat King Cole to the Beach Boys to Sarah MacLachlan.   There is always Christmas music playing at my house, and often one of us is singing along.

My mom’s friends have influenced me to make my home as beautiful at Christmas as I can afford.  I really delight in decorating little touches, small scented candles, and bits of greenery everywhere.  We also splurge some on some treats, like French cheeses, hard candies, and chocolates.

Another Christmas tradition is that I have collected a small trove of Christmas books and stories.  Some old, some new.  So, I always have at least one or two Christmas stories to read to William each night before he falls asleep.  And I have Christmas stories and poems that are written for adults that are a very special part of my Christmas that I re-read each year.

One memory I wanted to preserve for myself, in the way of the Christmases I remember, is the elegance, beauty, and excited anticipation that I associate with Christmas Eve.  So I try to make the evening of Christmas Eve quite special.  If I cook a special meal, it is on Christmas Eve.  But, since it is usually just my son and myself, we go out to a nice restaurant, in our best clothes.

Then, on Christmas Day, I suppose I try to make my Christmas days as unlike those of my childhood as possible!  Not the mornings, of course, which were wonderful.  Now, like then, we open stockings first, and we eat Pillsbury cinnamon rolls, but the rest of our day is filled with fun things to do.  We don’t like to relax on the couch on Christmas day.  If the weather permits, we take a long walk around the National Christmas tree and see all the little State trees, Yule Log, and Nativity.  Otherwise, we might go to the movies.  One year I went to see a funny play on Christmas Day (and the house was packed!).   Sometimes, we go to the National Cathedral for Vespers at 4 p.m., which is a lovely service.  At 6 p.m. on Christmas Day, there is a free jazz concert at the Kennedy Center.  I went last year, and my son has already told me he would like to go this year.

I think what I have learned about Christmas is that you can make it your own, in whatever way is meaningful to you.  To me, that means less emphasis on presents and feasts and more emphasis on music, the arts, decorations, long walks in Old Town, some quiet and reverent time in church, and spending time with the people who are most important to me.

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