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2007-12-26 - 11:58 a.m.

...remembering Christmas traditions...

Happy Second Day of Christmas, as K would say (and in fact did say this morning). I responded with a grunt. ugh. I have a cold. ugh.

Every Christmas holiday is a little bit kooky because K and I define the actual date of the holiday differently. "Christmas" to a German is "Christmas Eve" to an American. "Christmas" to an American is "the first Christmas Day" to a German. "Boxing Day" to the English is the "the second Christmas Day" to a German, and is "the 26th," or a normal work day, to an American. These subtle distinctions lead to a constant need to clarify which day we are talking about..., and is somewhat irritating to K because he thinks we Americans are rather illogical about our holiday naming procedure.

The discussion still makes me smile - because it makes me feel like we've already started our own little Christmas tradition of bickering about international Christmas nomenclature.
And partially because he doesn't realize how lucky he is in his choice of American ;-). My mother's family kept the German tradition, and every year we celebrated our Christmas on Christmas Eve. So even though I call it Christmas Eve, in my heart it's the time that is reserved for family.

Of course, when we were really young, Santa came on Christmas Day. My dad would come into our bedrooms at some crazy hour of the night, and wake us up - because through our bedroom window we could see a red glowing light - Rudolph's nose (or a red lantern hanging from a tree, as my skeptical older brother would tell me). But according to my dad, Rudolph had flown down to our bedroom to make sure we were in bed. I also remember hearing loud "HOs" from the living room, and the sounds of pattering hooves on the roof (or just mom throwing rocks on the roof, according to The Aforementioned Skeptic). But I remember wanting to believe, and my dad made sure we always knew when Santa had come..

During these years, we would wake well before dawn and wait impatiently for our parents to finally stumble into the living room so that we could start Christmas. I remember the year we got the game GNIP GNOP , which was too big for Santa to wrap. Our parents were forced to wake up at dawn with us, because we couldn't contain our glee as we screamed out "GNIP GNOP!!!!" and then started to play (for those of you who might remember this game, it was NOT quiet...).

When we were a bit older, even Santa had agreed to conform to the idea of Christmas on the 24th. Christmas Eve involved going to a church service (my brother and/or I would play an angel or a sheep in some little Krippenspiel, or had to memorize the phrase "I is for Israel" as Christmas was spelled out by a bunch of 6-year-olds). Miraculously, every year, Santa would mistake the quiet house with one that was full of sleeping people - and he would bring our presents and fill our stockings while we were out at church. And so, we would come home and Christmas would begin right away (which conveniently allowed my father to sleep in - so I'm beginning to think that this bargain with Santa must have been struck shortly after the GNIP GNOP year...).

There were also always traditions surrounding the Christmas tree. We lived in a 'farmhouse' in the country - so my dad felt it reasonable to go out and just chop down a tree. I never realized that trees could be groomed into lovely shapes until I was much older - we ALWAYS had a slightly misshapen, lopsided, holey Charlie Brown Christmas tree. And it was decked with a combination of lights and ornaments from my mother's childhood, and ornaments that my mother had made when my parents were first married - and topped with a hideous and tacky star that my mother had bought for ten cents at a drugstore in their first year together. (When I was a teenager, the upstairs neighbor's puppy chewed through the hideous old star and we were forced to buy a new one - we went out and found the tackiest star we could for $2.69.)

There were stories around most of the ornaments, and so I loved to help decorate the tree with my mother. But the greatest story of all involved putting up the tinsel - because the tinsel had to be put up one. strand. at. a. time. This was The Rule - established on the first Christmas that my Grandmother spent together with my Grandfather in Baltimore, MD. They put up two trees on either side of the dining room archway, back in the 1920s. My grandfather was ADAMANT about the tinsel being added to the tree, one strand at a time. My grandmother teased him. And so, Granddaddy proposed that they each decorate one tree in their own way. And by the end of the decoration process, my grandma was so embarrassed by HER tree, that every year after that, tinsel was laid on one. strand. at. a. time. as this story was told.

Even in the 1980s, when Blighty used to come and decorate our tree with us (and sneak clumps of tinsel onto the tree in the back - you couldn't hide it Blighty, we all knew you were doing it...), we told this story while putting up the tinsel. And in the 90s when Blighty moved off to England, I remember mailing her a Christmas card with one strand of tinsel enclosed... I've finally decided that I don't really like the look of tinsel on trees...but it's amazing to me that I still think of this simple little story nearly a century later, and I imagine that little wooden house in Baltimore, with two trees framing the archway between the living and dining rooms - and my petite grandmother as a young woman standing on a step stool with a clump of tinsel in her hand, scoffing at her new yet meticulous engineer husband, as she threw wads of tinsel on the tree...It's about as Norman Rockwellian an image I can muster for this family.

When my brother and I were teenagers, we moved with our mother from our country farmhouse to the city. I remember spending a couple more Christmases with our father out at the farm house...but Christmas started having a bittersweet twinge as my father deteriorated. I remember the first year when he didn't show up at all and Mom took us out for fast food Chinese food. I think I was 14. She told us he was "sick" - I no longer remember if I've just rewritten history to fill in the blanks, or if this was the first year that I actually was aware of his suicidal phone call when it happened. This phone call became somewhat of a Christmas tradition during my teenage years.

And, at that point, I think my mother chose to engage her children with other families, so that we could have a healthy feeling about Christmas. We spent Christmas Eve at a local Unitarian church's candlelighting service, and this became the tradition that I loved and miss the most. We would sing carols in a darkened church that was gradually lit by the candles we held ourselves. The minister would first share a Christmas parable of his own, meant to demonstrate that the spirit of Christmas and the feeling of enlightenment would come to each and everyone of us in an individual way - if the story of Jesus was not ours, then we would come to understand peace in a way that was special and unique to our own soul. (Such a message so appealed an adolescent 15-year-old!) The minister would then continue with The Christmas Story from Luke (which would reduce my mother to tears as she would recite it from memory with him, under her breath). And the light of the candles would continue to pass through the church as we sang traditional Carols - "Angels, We Have Heard on High!" - as we all left the church carrying our lit candles. I still miss this church service.

Afterwards we would visit family friends while they celebrated their Christmas. Or, we would go home, enjoy a Christmas stew, and my brother, my mother, and I (and later my step-father) would open our presents together. One favorite year was when I was 19 or 20 - the first year that my stepfather joined us. He decided that, for Christmas, he would make boating hats for all of the people who were dear to him. I have this wonderful photo of us sitting in front of the tree in these ridiculous, beautiful dyed cotton boating hats (mine was pink!).

We would spend Christmas Day with neighbors and friends, part of a huge party we called the "Waif Christmas" - all those students who couldn't fly home, single friends, Jewish friends, neighbors with and without kids - we'd converge on one house for a huge meal for 20 or so unrelated people. There were some Christmas regulars, but the crowd varied from year to year. Some years, even my father made it to this meal. And my parents still organize the Waif Christmas dinner every year.

Out of all of these experiences, I've somehow been shaped to think of Christmas Eve as the time dedicated to family - and the time when Christmas happens. So it never struck me as odd, that Germans would view Christmas as the 24th. It rather struck me as odd that K would be so dumbfounded that other people would experience Christmas in a different way. Oh, it's a joking rant coming from him, and it makes me smile. As I said, our very own annual tradition.

At this point, my hands are swollen, aching and tingling, making the cooking that was planned a little bit onerous. I really wanted to make up some potatoes, meatloaf and macaroni and cheese - three favorite comfort foods - for the freezer today. I'll probably choose one of the three - but at this point in the day I'm beginning to feel restless with just lying here with my feet up. But this has been a fun exercise - remembering Christmas.

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