It’s Christmas Eve day! Tomorrow is Christmas! I, for one, am super excited. This is just a fun time to the year, even if it has gotten smaller as I’ve gotten older. Looking back, Christmas used to be this big thing when my brother and I were younger. We had this special way of doing things in my house across Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
The start of December meant we got advent calendars and eating a chocolate a day was always exciting. Finding the correct door was sometimes hard for little me.
One Christmas Eve we were hustled off after supper to an evening church service: one of the family-oriented ones that meant all the kids would be in bed at a decent hour. A lot of local churches where I grew up also held midnight services, but we were too young for those. After the service we would drive home and first thing through the door we would eat the last advent chocolate. Then it was pajama and teeth brushing time. Once we were ready for bed we’d gather in the living room and we got to open one present each that evening. They were usually smaller things that our parents picked out in advance for the evening gift, but it was still fun. Then it was bed time. We’d hang up our stockings, set out milk and cookies for Santa, and then Mom would read us something before bed (which is actually how I heard most of the Harry Potter series originally).
I used to constantly try to stay awake, but I never could. I’d always wake up too early though. My parents had a rule: we didn’t wake them up until after 8. Which usually meant at 8. Then it was gift time! Stockings always came first, and everyone could do those at the same time. Once the stockings were done then someone always “played Santa” and distributed the gifts from under the tree. This was my parents when we were super little and then my brother and myself when we got older.
Once everyone got their stack of gifts we would then go one at a time opening a single gift. When we were a little older we also played 20 Questions (asking yes or no questions until we either guessed what it was or hit the 20 limit). This was done until all gifts were unwrapped!
Following breakfast there would be a big group cleaning effort where we got rid of all the wrapping stuff and the packaging because we usually opened everything fully then and there (except for the time by brother got a hockey net). Then we put everything away, got dressed, and my brother and I were permitted to play on one of our new toys (my parents had to watch us very closely when we got our shared Game Cube to make sure we were actually sharing).
After a quick lunch we would drive to my Uncle’s (my mother’s brother) for a big family Christmas. This was super exciting when I was younger because it meant seeing all my cousins and my nana and all these other family members. But most of the family was actually from my aunt’s side of the family. My direct branch is actually really small. I found out later that my parents packed extra presents for my brother and I so that we had a closer number of gifts to my cousins who had more family giving them presents. But I didn’t know that at the time and the gifts didn’t really matter. Once the gift-giving was all done we had a HUGE dinner with turkey and ham and potatoes and corn and carrots and stuffing and tons of dessert. It was awesome!
As I got older bits and pieces started falling away. Santa wasn’t real. We had other financial obligations so there weren’t as many presents. Christmas shopping was left later and later until Christmas Eve shopping was a tradition in-and-of itself. Sometimes we would go to a midnight service and then stopped going all together. Family members passed away or moved away and couldn’t come to family dinner, but we kept at it anyway. It wasn’t always at my uncle’s house but that was okay because the food was still good, and people were in a good mood. But in high school that was it: presents in the morning one at a time, and dinner with a dwindling family.
University I decided was going to be different. I met a friend who loved Christmas and decorated her dorm room November 12th. We decided to do a Secret Santa. We set a spending limit of $20 because we were poor university students but it made all the difference. Right before winter exams and Christmas break we sat down and exchanged our gifts all crowded into a dorm room. It was a success!
After that I went home, a plane ride at 4 in the morning. I was singing Celtic Woman’s “Christmas Bells” because my heart was full. My mother and I backed a ton of Christmas cookies and sent a box of them to all my friends across the country. While my father and brother were less interested in the holiday my mother and I started our own new tradition: there’s a village a little out of the way of my childhood home that lines their streets with candle luminaires on Christmas Eve. We would go out and visit and sing carols along with the radio or ipod connected to the car. Then we went to a midnight service. The first time, after my first semester away at university, I teared up at the candle lit part of the service and suddenly understood Dante’s description of lights in heaven. It was strange and we were quiet on the way home.
After the first year we always had an apartment to celebrate Christmas in (3rd and 4th year it was Carolyne’s and mine). So we’d have a Christmas meal and our Secret Santa gift exchange. The number of people changed but that didn’t matter. It was nice to get together and celebrate. My mother and I continued our new Christmas Eve tradition of lights and songs and midnight drives home. Christmas day was gifts and dinner as always.
That’s changed recently too. I graduated my first university and headed for my MA. No Secret Santa but I painted little canvases for the other students in my program and went to the professor’s Christmas party. My parents had sold my childhood home and that Christmas was spent at my Uncle’s house. We have an apartment now but last Christmas was in October when my brother could actually come down and in November when I visited my best friend. We did have a small gift exchange but we’re too far away to visit the lit village or have a midnight service at a church we know.
This year is quiet for the family but I got to visit Rach back in October and that was nice. I’ve made tons of cookies and brought them to work and given them to friends I made this year that have moved on to new jobs too. And that’s been enough. Traditions are nice but so are the small things.
So have a happy holiday; whether you are celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, Kwanzaa, or any other winter holiday. Or even if you’re not, have fun anyway!