Last week, while teaching one my early childhood music classes one of my five-year olds turned to me and said, “Do you want to know why I love Christmas so much!?” I expected him to talk about presents or this “elf on a shelf” or something to that effect, but he followed up with, “Because we always go to Colorado to see my grandma and also because there’s snow there!” Another boy chimed in, “Want to know why Christmas is the best time of year? Because you get to be with all the family you don’t see a lot!”
Grandma, extended family, and snow. That’s why Christmas is special to these children. It got me thinking, why is Christmas special to me? Christmas has definitely changed over the years for me, so I’ll start with the typical Christmas traditions from my childhood.
The house is warm, cozy, cinnamon wafting through the air as my mom gets ready to make her 100th loaf of bread. My sister and I assist her in the kitchen, eagerly waiting to pull and prod the dough, sneaking little pieces to nibble on as we “help” roll it out. We take turns spreading the cinnamon-sugar, sprinkling tiny water droplets, and rolling up the dough before resting it in the bread tin.
On Christmas Eve, my sister and I will deliver all this bread that my mom has baked with my dad. We give it out to our neighbors in Norfolk as well as to family, friends, and work colleagues. This is a tradition my mom started in our small little town. She had a gift and became famous for “Cindy’s Cinnamon Bread”. The town began to expect their yearly loaf and others began to make their own traditional baked goods to hand out for the holidays. It was an act that brought the community together and an extra reason for the town of Norfolk to look forward to the holiday season.
We stand outside as Mom hangs our decorative candy canes on the wooden beams of our front porch. She takes red bows and ties them out front before stringing lights along the cross beam. We have an old Christmas tree planted beside our house that she also strings with lights. Inside, there are wreaths we’ve made at a craft night at church. There are lights on the banister and on our own Christmas tree which is crowded with homemade ornaments from children’s projects and ancestors who have passed on. Decorative pieces sit atop all available furniture. There’s a nativity scene, a friendly snowman, Douglas Fir (who quickly becomes more annoying than festive), fancy candles with sleighs and winter scenes, and miniature houses covered with snow. Christmas carols vibrate through the house as we work with Mom to decorate and fill our home with the holiday spirit.
We’re back in the kitchen. Mom has pulled out the gingerbread mold and my sister and I anxiously await the decorating and consumption of candy that’s about to commence. We help her mix up the dough and fill the molds so they can bake and be ready for the next day. We whip up a batch of “glue frosting” which will hold our mold in place and stick all of the candy we don’t end up eating onto our house and sleigh. Our gingerbread house is special. We have a house, sure, but we also add a hill for sledding and a pond so we can have an excuse to buy gummy sharks and frogs to eat. Mom uses a sleigh mold which we decorate and use a stuffed Santa to sit atop while stuffed Reindeer lead the way. Everything is over the top. Everything is fun, warm, delicious. This is Christmas.
On Christmas Eve, we always go to church. At least one service if not two. We have friends and family over for Christmas Eve dinner between the two services. I love going to the service because we sing all the Christmas songs. At home, my brother, sister, and I give some sort of concert on our respective instruments so my parents can show off to our extended family what we’ve been working on. I say that like it’s their idea, but really, we love to perform for them. We are allowed to open one gift each on Christmas Eve night. Each of us chooses one of the gifts that’s already sitting under the tree and open them excitedly while our family beams at the happiness they’ve just provided.
Christmas morning we all wake up and rush down the stairs. Dad has to take the traditional “run down the stairs” photo of us. One year our cousin Jeremy is sleeping on the couch and we run past all of our presents to jump on him instead. This is my dad’s favorite Christmas memory. We open our gifts taking turns and then get ready for a breakfast of eggs and bacon. Dad drinks the bacon grease with his friend Ed while everybody else goes, “EWW, GROSS”. This happens every year.
Later on, we go to my mom’s side of the family for Christmas lunch/dinner. We have some Polish food representing our heritage, along with a typical Christmas feast. The adults do a type of gift exchange while the kids just receive presents. My sister, my cousin Mandy, and I always count up our gifts to see who got more. Then we play board games and hang out with the family. It’s nice seeing our cousins because we basically only see them for holidays.
Everything feels warm in my memory of my childhood Christmases. There’s so much love, so much dedication to generosity, this energy pours out from our traditions and soaks my soul with light. But the magic of childhood does not last forever.
Families that used to come over for Christmas Eve start their own traditions without us. We get older and more interested in our friends than family gatherings. Helping bake bread seems more like a burden than an exciting prospect. Eventually, my sister doesn’t even celebrate Christmas a few years. The holiday has fizzled to an obligation to buy gifts and pretend everything is okay. “Where are you Christmas?” makes my eyes sting and turn blurry. My mom slowly slips further into her decline…
No longer able to make bread I noticed we also stopped receiving the baked goods we normally got from neighbors. First, I was angry. “Don’t they know that Mom is sick? She can’t even make bread anymore! It’s only okay to give something if you get something in return?” Then, I was sad. Our traditional breakfast always included a slice of homemade bread from one of our neighbors, and our table felt a little barer. Finally, I was determined. We would restart the traditions for my mom.
With help from the rest of the family we pulled together what we could from our time with Mom. My sister and I baked bread, cookies, and the gingerbread house. My dad got all the children to put up the Christmas tree and ornaments together while Christmas Carols played in the background. Mom would sit on the couch and watch us work. We would try and make her smile with jokes and affection.
For a long time, it’s felt like something was missing during Christmas. I realize now it was simply the huge presence my mother created. Why is Christmas special? Because now it’s the time of year I’m reminded to pass on what my mom started. The warmth, the generosity, the delicious baked goods… This might be the last Christmas I have with my mom, but the traditions she taught I will carry with me for every year to come.