Growing up I always counted down the days to December 24th. That was the day we’d open our Christmas gifts. We’d start either after the church Christmas pageant (which we were in, at least through sixth grade), or sometime in early evening. It was a party. Friends would stop by, my mom would make her trade mark bar-bq’d beef, and the egg nog and drinks would be flowing (though us kids would be satisfied with root beer floats).
I usually was the one to hand out gifts, and we’d go one at a time, with numerous breaks. That meant that gift sharing took a better part of the evening, and I tended to hoard a couple of gifts so that when everyone was done, I still had one or two to open. I’d manage to skip my “turn” at opening by not having one ready or handing out a gift to the person after me, realizing that most people weren’t really keeping track of whose turn it was. I liked being the last one to open a gift.
We’d get our “Santa gifts” the next day. My parents were smart, they’d put out the gifts, unwrapped, and fill our stocking so when we woke up we could run and start playing with our toys. Our most expensive and “special” gifts were the Santa gifts, and we’d often get up at 6:00 AM to go find them. My parents could stay in bed, no doubt slightly hung over from the night before, as we kids would have fun. Those were the days. When I was very young we’d head to Madelia, Minnesota on Christmas to my great grandparents house. After age 12 (when my Great Grandpa died and they sold the farm) we’d say home, with my Grandma from Mankato visiting. Also up through age 12 we’d go to church Christmas day. Then in a fight my mom would leave my dad’s Missouri Synod Lutheran home and join the American Luthern Church. My dad stopped going to church out of embarrassment. My mom and sisters went to the ALC church, and I stayed home. At that point I still believed, but really didn’t like church.
One year we did go to Madelia on Christmas eve, and the celebration was huge. All our cousins were there, someone dressed as Santa handed out gifts to the kids, and the party went most of the night. I later asked why we usually came on Christmas day rather than celebrate Christmas eve there, and I was told that my family wanted to have our own Christmas eve tradition. It was a good one. One year, when I was 19 and my sisters were 17 and 11 I screwed it up. I had volunteered to work Christmas eve at Village Inn Pizza, where I was a supervisor/night manager. My boss Warren Andy told me to close at 7:00, and expected I wouldn’t be busy. I had one helper in the kitchen, and one person busing/dishwashing.
My sisters were disappointed that we wouldn’t be able to start until 7:30, but I tended to volunteer to work all holidays (Easter one year, July 4th double shifts every year because people wanted that day off and I loved getting 18 hour days), and figured it would be easy. At 7:00 people were lined out the door. My instinct as night manager took over and I kept the place open until the line dwindled, finally closing at near 8:30. My sisters were calling demanding I get home so they could open presents. By 10:00 everyone had left and every table was dirty, and it was a disaster. My sisters actually came in and helped clean and close the place. We started opening gifts at near midnight!
The first year I missed Christmas eve at home was when I spent a year in Bologna Italy, working on my MA. But I traveled to the Christmas markets in Germany (Munich, Regensburg, Nuremberg, Ingolstadt — I think in total I hit about eight markets!) as well as enjoying the run up to Christmas in Italy. By the time I was 25 my parents divorced, but the traditions continued. My mom held Christmas eve with my sister’s family much like we did as kids – a party, my niece and nephew enjoying gifts, and my Grandma coming in from Mankato. I’d pick her up en route from Minneapolis while working on my doctorate at the U. of Minnesota, and despite some icy roads we made it every year. My dad would have turkey and we’d open his gifts Christmas day.
When I moved to Maine and got married, the traditions faded as we were so far from South Dakota. We often opened gifts when they arrived rather than waiting for Christmas eve, and with only two people and families far away, it took awhile to have it really feel like Christmas. We traveled to South Dakota a couple times, but it wasn’t until we had kids that we started our own traditions. We still do gifts Christmas eve. Unlike my parents, we have only one Santa gift Christmas day (my parents give us a bunch), and it’s wrapped. We also stuff the stockings, of course. We roast a turkey on Christmas day, and unlike my parents, we don’t have a lot of guests or a party atmosphere on Christmas eve. Not only are family distant, but most friends work at the University and are scattered during this time.
We look forward to going to South Dakota for Christmas sometime soon, and we have a plan to go to Christmas markets in Germany some not too distant year. We don’t go to church, but the kids recognize it as a Christian holiday that we enjoy because we believe in the same values: peace, love, and goodwill to all. We spend time talking about that, even as we indulge more than I’d like to in the consumer culture in buying remarkably cheap toys and gifts for the kids. Christmas music fills the house (though as I write this Star Wars music dominates, as the kids are playing Wii lego Star Wars: the Complete Sage, a game they’ve been addicted to for about a month). And, though I miss the magical feeling I had as a youth, starring at the Christmas tree lights, in awe of the beauty of the colors, tree, presents and decorations, it’s still a great time of the year. We watch some Christmas movies, decorate the house (though we have yet to indulge in a real tree), and have good family time.
So everyone, have yourself a merry little Christmas, and for those who don’t celebrate it, peace, love and goodwill to you as well. Those values are real, fundamental and unite humans, even if we choose too often to separate ourselves from them. Muslim, Jew, Christian, atheist, agnostic and other (and believe me, it’s a struggle to raise kids and explain things when you’re an ‘other’ like I am — it’s harder without an already scripted storyline and set of rules!), love connects us all. May the force be with you this holiday season!