Generations of Christmas Celebrations
by Ann Marie Miller
I remember the Christmas tree with the trains underneath and my brother setting them up to be perfect. I always had the new dress that most often my mother sewed for me. On Christmas there was no ceremony to open gifts - there were only a few to open: the new flannel pajamas, a doll or two that were memorable, crayons and coloring books, but not much else. There had to be a feast on Christmas Eve, and on Christmas Day. My mother hosted one or the other. She cooked for days. The special foods cost so much money, and toys and books were an added expense. When I “grew up” I learned my mothers family were busy with their business on holidays, an Italian bread bakery. The children each got candy and money as a gift in her family. My father had no gifts other than a pair of socks, or new shoes. His mother died leaving 6 children when he was eleven, and his father showed no love or kindness to those children.
The gifts that I remember most were the aromas and sounds of Christmas. The scent of the Christmas tree filled the room with a feeling of being outside in the woods. The food that was cooking in the kitchen filtered through the entire house. It would last on the bed sheets until they were washed, reminding me of the home made ravioli, and my mothers pasta sauce that could never be made the same. The table was never empty on a holiday. Not all the food was served at one time to the ten or twelve or fifteen people squeezed into the kitchen. The men played cards and cracked nuts, cut fruit with a knife, and finished the table wine from dinner. I loved that sound! The women cleared the table and made room for the final touch: Italian pastries and espresso. By that time, all I wanted was to fall sleep listening to the Christmas carols on the radio that were background to the voices that made the music in the kitchen. The sofa was mine, until somebody noticed I was sleeping. If it was Christmas Eve the house emptied out for Midnight Mass.
When I married, I learned those memories would have to stay with me as I made new ones. I did not marry an Italian man, and my husband’s family had combined the customs from both their families to create their own. They gave so many gifts! The year after I was married, our daughter was born. Her first Christmas was the one we created for ourselves. I remember buying her a truck so that she would never feel girls could not play with trucks. She put her toys in it. This baby was my gift and still is. I remember the happiness. New clothes, new aromas, new voices.
When our second child came, the crunch for the Santa Surprise was high pressure; especially when a new bike had to be assembled. We taught the children to empty the Christmas stocking Santa left on their bedroom doorknobs, and, afterwards, to tell us they were awake. They could not leave their rooms to see what was under the tree until I had the camera ready. We tried so hard to give the gifts that they wished for; never flannel pajamas.
Our son loved to take care of the tree. He decided he wanted a tree we could keep in a box all year, especially after freezing on the shores of Lake Erie to buy a tree one year. We were okay with a fake tree. As he got older, about ten years old, he had to have a ceremony to bless the tree. He would play a Christmas carol on the piano. Then my husband played “O Holy Night” on the piano with the passion and flourish he always felt when he played it. We applauded. My son read the story of the nativity and would read his blessing for the tree. When all was done, he plugged in the lights, and it was Christmas. Mass was always on Christmas Day. There was no longer the aroma of a real Christmas tree. New clothes, new memories. New voices.
Our daughter, son-in-law, and their two children have created their own customs and traditions for Christmas. We begin with Mass for the children late afternoon on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day is a wonderful brunch our daughter is known for. We have an empty chair. Our son has gone before us twenty-eight years ago, and has prayed for us every day since. The family does not forget him. The children have a sense of who he was.
When a family is created, traditions change and new ones take the place of those that are gone. Gifts for us, and from us (now the grandparents), are opened. The family dog tearing all the wrapping paper makes a wonderful sound. The family spends the day just being close and admiring the Christmas tree. A real Christmas tree. The kind that has the scent of the outside coming into the house. New voices, new clothes, new people, but the scent of that freshly cut tree brings back all the old memories.