I can think of no other day on the calendar when expectation and anticipation flow like a furious river through my home. And I’m sure it is the same, from home to home, all along my sleepy street.
Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house / Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. / The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, / In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there…
Our morning routine follows this pattern: clean the house, complete numerous shopping trips to the local Big Box store for last minute gifts and dinner ingredients, and comb through the existing pile of to-be-wrapped-gifts for the children. Have we got an even amount of gifts—most likely, no—or did we spend approximately the same amount of money—that’s more likely—on each kid? Grab the calculator, and do a double-check.
The annual Christmas Eve dinner falls under our responsibility, as it has in a long string of previous years. As the in-laws arrive, my wife prepares a family favorite—potato pancakes with sour cream, applesauce, and baked beans—much to the childrens’ delight. Dinner concludes with full bellies all around, but there is more to do this evening.
The Christmas Eve candlelight service is my favorite of the year—with the exception of Easter, perhaps. Nonetheless, I really enjoy this family tradition. A one-hour service featuring wonderful music and a brief sermon, is followed by a lit candle that is passed down the length of the sanctuary—the tip touching the candle of each person on the end of the row. That anchor person then passes the flame to the person beside them, and so on, until the entire room is illuminated by a hundred single flickering lights. During this portion of the service, I opt to capture an image of my family, beside me, participating in the ceremonies.
Upon conclusion, the family returns home (including my in-laws) to initialize another tradition of gingerbread house construction. This is a grandparent project, and has been since its inception. Afterwards, we all participate in chocolate pudding pie with whipped cream, and hot coffee and/or cold milk.
And finally, when the evening comes to an end, and the anticipation has reached an all-time high, we give the kids their Christmas Eve gift. They always know what it is, as it’s always the same: new pajamas to wear on Christmas morning. Kids, time for bed!
Each year, my wife and I vow to not wrap gifts on Christmas Eve, but to rather begin the gift-wrapping process much earlier in the month. And this year, we did wrap a hefty portion of gifts including all of the presents to each other, and several for each of the kids; however, much remained and stacks of gifts required attention. Once the children were tucked in bed, we carried all of the packages, bags, and boxes to the living room, where my wife and I began our final Christmas Eve tradition: wrapping gifts while watching A Christmas Story (1983).
Ralphie: I want a Red Ryder carbine action two-hundred shot range model air rifle. Oooooooh! Mother: No, you’ll shoot your eye out. ~ A Christmas Story
Officially, for the record, she hates the movie. My wife would rather be stranded on a desert island, without shoes, dressed in a tattered swimsuit, forced to live off of rotten hermit crabs and dirty rainwater, than forced to watch this movie with me. Yet she does, year after year, on Christmas Eve, in the 10:00pm time slot, while we wrap gifts for the kids. That, my friends, is true legit love. But I digress…
With all of the gifts wrapped, we stack the presents in fun-time zones: one pile on the couch for Kid A, another pile in the center for Kid B, and the last lonely pile of gifts for Kid C. I have no idea why we follow this gift-giving protocol; I’d probably prefer to pile them all under the tree, and call it a night. Although, it’s rarely my call.
In what I would call a bonafide Christmas miracle, we are both in bed—selected reading material perched under our noses—before midnight. And I pause to recall all of the family traditions that were once paramount, but no longer bear any resemblance of importance.
In the few hours preceding bedtime, our family always gathered in the home of a matriarch. When I was very young, the designated house belonged to my great grandmother, and I can still recall the soft glow of paper bag luminaries which decorated the walkway from street to door. As I grew older, and the responsibility shifted to next-in-line, we would celebrate Christmas Eve at my grandmother’s home. The entire family—of considerable size and body count at that time in life—gathered around her dining room table, crammed into a tiny space, and awaited the official tradition of honey on the forehead.
It was a tradition that was simultaneously despised and revered, oddly enough. I have no idea where the tradition originates, most likely from the Slovakian heritage, but our family practiced it each year. As my grandmother dipped her finger in honey—we pushed our hair out of the way, as no one likes sticky bangs—moved it across your forehead, made the shape of a cross on your skin, handed you a wafer, and repeated the following words to each individual: Christ is born.
It’s funny that I haven’t thought about the tradition until now, decades later. The formal structure of huge family dinners are all but a faint memory now. My grandmother has long since moved away, absorbed into the larger family dynamic of her son and daughter. With my own parents, I haven’t celebrated a combined Christmas in over twenty years—physical distance and geography has a way of smothering specific family traditions.
On the drive home from the family dinner, with a honey cross dried on my head, my father would tune the radio to a local station that reported the live status of Santa’s trajectory across the Western Pennsylvanian landscape. Inevitably, the reported data always reflected the necessity of us rushing home to finish the Christmas Eve to-do list, before hopping between the blankets.
Our at-home Christmas Eve traditions revolved around the Big Fat Man: placing a tray of cookies, cup of cold milk, friendly correspondence, and fresh carrots for the reindeer. In my childhood home, Christmas was defined by Santa Claus, and all of the gifts that he’d slide down our chimney while we slept—or attempted to fall asleep in our chilly beds—and, oddly enough, I never did question the fact that a roaring fireplace was the centerpiece and, usually, prime heating source for our drafty home.
It’s true, Christmas can feel like a lot of work, particularly for mothers. But when you look back on all the Christmases in your life, you’ll find you’ve created family traditions and lasting memories. Those memories, good and bad, are really what help to keep a family together over the long haul. ~ Caroline Kennedy
In my pajamas, blankets pulled tightly to my chin, and I can barely read a few pages from my current book in rotation—The Two Towers. I set the book on my side table, close my eyes, and think about the future Christmas Eves that I may experience.
Will my children adopt or abandon the traditions that my wife and I have established? Perhaps, they will choose to combine traditions from their childhood with that of their future spouse, which may be entirely different in shape and form than any of them know.
I guess that I will just have to wait and see—in expectation and anticipation—for myself, while visions of sugar-plums dance in my head.
..The children were nestled all snug in their beds, / While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads; / And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap, / Had just settled down for a long winter’s nap. ~ Twas the Night before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore