Christmas Traditions of Yore

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To this day the memory transports me to a place of wonder and magic, filling me with warmth and love, and a sense of anticipation overtakes me.  For whatever reason, the tree that year was especially beautiful – all the lights, decorations, and tinsel – it was almost like Currier and Ives had come to life right in our family room, but even better – in Technicolor and 3-D.  I sat next to the tree, playing with UNO cards, listening to the Christmas music that typically played 24/7 during that time of year, and just allowed that moment to fill my being with all its wonder and beauty.  30+ years later (and we are not really counting, are we? At Christmastime we are all children, anyhow. Right?) I not only recall that moment often, I relive it every time.  The same emotions wash over me, the same wonder fills my being, be it June or December. 

Christmas was always a very special time in our household.  It was a time of year when we held to tradition, which wasn’t exactly typical of our family.  Not that we were actually anti-tradition, we never really gave it much thought.  However, at Christmastime we did everything pretty much the same every year, yet somehow each and every year we reveled in every moment as if it were the first time we were living it.  We were like a family of little children, savoring every moment of the season from Thanksgiving to New Year as if it were cotton candy on our tongue. 

It all started the day after Thanksgiving.  Mom would drag out the dozens of boxes containing Christmas decorations and we’d all begin decorating the house.  The whole house.  Inside and out.  And sometime that week dad would take his chain saw, find a Christmas tree farm, and go chop a tree.  Sometimes it was a family affair, and sometimes it was a man-thing that he and my brother did together.  He’d drag it through the house to the designated spot and drop it into the holder.  Mom would stand back and direct him as to whether or not it was straight and then he’d carefully pour water in the cup.  After the tree was straight and pruned so it looked even, each person would do their part of the job.  My dad’s part was lights.  Always the lights.  No one else did the lights but dad.  The Christmas record or tape (dating myself here?) was playing – sometimes it was Time Life Classics sometimes it was the latest Hallmark Christmas Collection – and dad would string the lights on very carefully, covering each branch and making sure they were spread out evenly.  Tree decorating was an event not taken lightly in our home.  Then he’d find the special electric Hallmark keepsake ornament I bought him of a father and son carrying home a Christmas tree (this was much later – since I bought it for him in 1990) and find a special spot for it.  Afterward we’d help mom with the garland, ornaments and tinsel.  There was never a theme to our Christmas tree, unless you consider “all the ornaments we’ve collected over the years” a theme.  There were the beaded spiders we got from someone in the family (they are actually pretty, believe it or not), the shrunk plastic bells with our names on them from my uncle (we got those when I was still in single-digits), and the Holland wooden shoe ones that my parents brought back from their trip to Europe in ’89 (that our dog Brittany used as a chew toy), among the other treasures we still have. 

Then dad would proceed to light up the entire neighborhood from our front lawn.  He lined the house with lights.  Lights were put on the trees.  Plastic candy canes lined the walkway with lights strung through them.  Later on he bought a huge lit manger scene.  It was a regular spectacle that people loved to drive by to look at.

From that day until Christmas we’d spend our evenings making Christmas candy with mom: almond roca, peanut brittle, frango fudge, almond joys, cookies, and all manner of other sweets.  We’d do our Christmas shopping and taunt each other with “guess what I got you for Christmas”.  We’d try to outdo each other with our wrapping capabilities.  It was such fun.  Dad had a tradition of buying mom a new outfit each Christmas.  He’d spend a little extra to get her something nice at Meier & Frank and then have it gift-wrapped for her.  It was his special tradition and way of spoiling mom. 

What I loved most of all was the fact that there was actually very little emphasis placed on gifts – other than trying to be as meaningful as possible.  We had a very low budget for buying gifts, more out of principle than necessity.  As children we never complained about what we did or didn’t get, and we were taught to be grateful for the littlest of things.  My parents also deeply instilled in us how much more joy there is in giving.  Each year we’d choose a needy family to give to.  I can clearly remember how utterly excited I’d get as we would pile our car full of gifts for them, while anticipating seeing their faces as we piled all those gifts under their tree.  Honestly, it is one of the most fulfilling moments – watching the children’s eyes grow wide with wonder and their faces light up with excitement, while the parents tried to keep a show of being “older and mature” while not being able to hid their inner child.

Day after day the house would fill up more and more with the smells of Christmas: a fresh tree, baked sweets, and mom’s Christmas candles.  And day after day the gifts would continue to accumulate under the tree – and it seemed we would literally explode with anticipation before Christmas day arrived!

Mom and dad began a special Christmas Eve tradition the first year they were married.  They always ate Italian food on Christmas eve.  Maybe that was due to my mom’s Italian roots? At any rate, we’d sit down to one of mom’s Italian specialties: spaghetti, lasagna, fettuccini alfredo, polenta – she is the best Italian cook in the world!  After the dishes were done we’d don our coats, hats, and gloves to carol our neighbors homes.  Before leaving the house dad would say, “Okay, guys, here we go: we’re going to sing Deck the Halls, Joy to the World, Silent Night, and at each home we’ll end off with We Wish You A Merry Christmas.”  We are all musical – all 5 of us – so the neighbors were really lucky!  (*wink*)  And we received a myriad of responses ranging from pleasantly surprised that people “still do that these days” to people flatly refusing to open the door or acknowledge that anyone was even there.  Once someone even turned their stereo up really loud to tune us out.  GRINCH!  When he still had a beard, my dad bore a striking resemblance to Sean Connery, and so when no one would come to the door he’d turn to us and say, “That poor lady looked through the peep hole, and when she saw the sexiest man in the world caroling her on her doorstep she just fainted dead away from shock!”  (When my dad found out that Sean Connery was once voted Sexiest Man In the World he never forgot it – and neither did we!)

When we returned we’d settle down in the living room with our egg nog and Christmas candy to hear dad read the Christmas story from the Book of Luke.  He’d then remind us how Martin Luther, while out walking one winter night, was fascinated by how the moon light sparkled on the snow-laden branches of the pine trees, how he chopped one down, put it in his home, and lit it with candles.  He’d also remind us of why we have a Christmas tree in our home: that Jesus gave His life for us on a tree, that He is the light of the world and therefore we put lights on our tree, and that He gave us salvation as a gift, so we place our gifts under the tree.  I am so glad he continued to instill in us these lessons, because they have saved us from growing cynical amidst the commercialization of the holiday. 

After saying a prayer of thanks for the sacrifice that Christ made for us, and the gift of salvation we’d received.  He’d turn on Christmas music.  One record in particular seemed to become traditional for opening gifts: “The Good Twins – Wisemen Still Seek Him”.  Then he’d hand out all the gifts.  We never just tore into our gifts; instead we’d wait until he was done handing them out.  Once he was done he’d look around at all his gifts and exclaim, “Wow!  Where did all these gifts come from?  I must be the richest man in the world.”  I would literally wait for that moment.  It was so special because he was genuinely surprised each year at receiving so much.  It was never a show and it was never a part of our tradition, and yet in a very special and meaningful way it sort of was, although he never meant it that way.  

We would then go around in a circle opening up one gift one-by-one – each person exclaiming over every else’s gift, and each person was properly thanked for what they gave.  It really was like a moment out of a Hallmark movie, but it was all so genuine. 

After opening our gifts we’d all pile in the car to head off for our church’s candlelight service.  As if the evening wasn’t magical already – this only brought it to a whole new level.  By candlelight we’d lead the church in traditional Christmas carols and once again hear the Christmas story.  There is something so sentimental about doing this by candlelight with friends and family.  We’d exchange gifts with our friends and excitedly share with them what we got before we had to go home and somehow go to sleep with all that adrenaline flowing!  And the excitement of knowing that tomorrow was Christmas Day!

I really tried to stay in bed until at least 7am.  I really did – but I rarely ever did!  The excitement would get the better of me and I’d head down to the kitchen pretending to need a glass of water – but really wanting to check to see if anyone else was up.  Pretty soon the rest of the house would join me (or us – because usually my siblings were suffering from the same ailment!) and we’d gather in the living room with our hot cocoa, cider or coffee when we were older.  Dad or mom would hand us our stockings and we’d begin pulling out the little goodies that were stuffed in there.  But each year mom and dad’s stockings were missing.  They had a special tradition of hiding each other’s stockings somewhere in the house.  So after we were done opening our stockings they’d begin their annual game of “Hot and Cold”.  We’d skip along behind them giggling and trying to guess where their stockings were hid – and nearly bursting with excitement over what we’d given them…we just couldn’t wait for them open our gift.

What followed was a fun day of being together, hardly waiting for the big turkey dinner, eating ourselves silly, and just enjoying the day. 

As I have reminisced back on my childhood and the number of special traditions we shared as a family it has filled me with such wonder and inspiration, remembering each magical moment and I am even more inspired to begin making new and special traditions with my husband and son.  This year we’ve hung on to some older traditions: eating Italian food on Christmas Eve and reading the Christmas story before opening our gifts, and we’ve started a new “Jukic Family” tradition: opening up Christmas gifts Christmas morning. 

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