In my last post I thought it’d be fun to look back on all the things I loved most about Christmases past, so I feel like diving in with a long post. If you want some good old-fashioned seasonal joy, here’s the place. I’d love to hear your own take on the season as well.
(If you’re not down for a trip down memory lane, just come back Thursday morning for the live blog of the parade.)
September through November
This counts to some extent because this is when my mom would start playing Christmas music every year. I’m not kidding. The last day of the Fair was Labor Day, and when my sister and I were younger our mom always worked at one of the booths there for extra money. After that she’d go into holiday overdrive. Oh, we still celebrated Halloween, but things started ramping up slowly before that, and after Halloween it was full steam ahead.
We had a collection of cassettes recorded off of vinyl albums my parents had, which were absolutely wonderful, and as time went on a CD collection grew as well. The albums I remember most are the W. T. Grants stores “A Very Merry Christmas” series (I still need to acquire a good digital copy of volume 8), one from a store called Big N, and a few of the True Value albums. Amy Grant’s first Christmas album was also a staple for many years (her music already being well known in our home).
This is of course where it all starts, situated about a week after my birthday. By this time of year gift lust had been sated and it’s time for the true beginning of the Christmas season.
When I was a kid, Thanksgiving wasn’t really about food. My deep and abiding love for mashed potatoes grew over time, but really it was hit or miss for a long time until we started celebrating more regularly once we moved into the mobile home; I had just turned 8 our first year there. We had some Thanksgivings over at my grandparents’ and at my aunt’s in Rochester. (Famously, one year my aunt decided to try preparing the whole meal in her new microwave, not realizing yet that microwaves have some severe limitations. Despite that incident she really is a fantastic cook, but that story lives on.)
In the mobile home, very often my maternal grandmother would come to eat with us and she’d stay over the night before, so a few years I ended up sleeping in the living room, staying up late watching Johnny Carson. Gads those were the days. Somehow I slept through most of the morning cooking commotion, except the one year my mom’s hair briefly caught fire.
Football was never a big part of our Thanksgivings, although this year I’m making an exception for the Bills. What was a part of it, though, was the parade.
If you follow my blog you know I live-blog the Macy’s parade every year, and I’ve been watching it long before that. The first year I remember really paying attention to it was when we lived with my grandparents. I was 7 and I remember being really excited to see Cats, which turned out to be the song “Memories” from the musical Cats, which was incredibly disappointing. Still the parade was a lot of fun and I ended up watching it every year after that.
When I was 11 we went to New York City to visit my uncle who lived there, and more of my dad’s family came in from Ohio as well. Seeing the parade in person was absolutely amazing, although most of it I saw through a cardboard periscope being sold by a canny vendor nearby. I was sick for the actual Thanksgiving meal, but over the next few days I raided leftover ham (yes, they had ham too) from the fridge and shared it with my uncle’s legendary tank of a cat, Sam.
These days I’m more psyched about the food than I used to be, but the parade is still the best part of my day. Later on after the feast, when everyone’s stuffed full and relaxing, my mom and I comb through the paper to see all the Black Friday advertisements and plan for battle.
Black Friday and other shopping
For many years now my mom and I have made Black Friday shopping an adventure, although that’s faded a bit over the last few years. Our Christmas gatherings have massively simplified now so I have fewer people to buy for, and I don’t really need or want as much stuff as I used to so although I still look for ideas to add to my list, it’s not the mad rush it used to be. We used to make the rounds between Great Northern Mall and Carousel (now Destiny) and several other stores, getting lunch somewhere along the way. Doorbusters weren’t really our thing—way too early for me—but we often got in on morning deals.
This year I’m going to have to scale it back even more, thanks to my misbehaving feet, but we should still get to do a little bit. Right now we’re probably looking at Best Buy, maybe Macy’s, Barnes & Noble, and possibly a couple other stores near B&N and Great Northern.
I could go off on a tangent about the malls of my youth that have died or have a foot and a half in the grave, where once we had great shopping experiences, but there’s too much to say and it’s all a bit rambly. Just a sigh for days gone by and a salute to what once was. But we had many, many good times out and about during the season: experiencing the hustle of it all, seeing Christmas displays, hitting sales. I love me some Amazon Prime, but it saddens me that the death of retail is the trade-off.
One of my best memories, though, is from the mid-’80s. One year on “Christmas Adam” (the 23rd) we went out in the Ford Escort hatchback and went Christmas shopping with my maternal grandmother, all over the area that’s now practically my backyard. One of the now-defunct stores I must mention fondly is Hafner’s Red Barn, which was an absolutely gorgeous store at Christmastime. We had a blast that day going from place to place. My sister and I sat in the back, not really a seat as such but good enough to get the job done, where we drank Pepsi and enjoyed the day. I had a lot of trips in the back of that hatchback till my growth spurt hit.
Candy and cookies
No mention of the season would be complete without talking about the goodies. My stay-at-home mom used to sell chocolate candy as a sideline, which was biggest around Christmas and Easter, decorating molds with various colors and then and filling with milk chocolate, dark, colored white chocolate, or sometimes milk chocolate with peanut butter or crispy rice.
My favorite candy she made was her chocolate covered cherries, which she hasn’t made in a long time. You can’t find anything like them in stores. She would mix up some kind of sugary slurry (I seem to remember she called it fondant, but it really wasn’t) with some of the juice of the Maraschino cherries she’d use, stick a little of that into the coated mold, throw in a cherry, and then later cover it over to form a bottom. This process resulted in a small but not insignificant number of casualties due to leaks, which my sister and I got to eat.
Cookies were a huge deal too. She made sugar cookies and gingerbread cookies which were frosted with buttercream, and those are still a staple of the season, but also there were snickerdoodles, Hershey’s Kiss peanut butter cookies, red-and-green striped cookies that were basically a slightly less-baked version of the sugar cookie dough, and occasionally even spritz cookies.
Decorating the frosted cookies was a frequent chore for my sister and me. We didn’t really mind it unless it dragged on, but we’d have a few bowls of frosting with different colors and just go to town getting creative with the various cookies. I was a little too artistic, which slowed me down.
Popcorn balls were a thing as well: not my favorite, but good. I’m not a huge carmelcorn guy. But sometimes they just hit the spot, and we were encouraged to finish up the bowl of them over the course of the season. Come to think of it, we had a crapload of sweets around the house. This is to say nothing of the assorted candy canes, Hershey’s miniatures, or the couple of years we made gingerbread houses. Good gads.
After our old artificial tree went kaput, our first Christmas in the mobile home we had a real pine tree. That lasted exactly one year: it gave my sister a major allergy attack and wasn’t too good for me either, and we had pine needles stuck in the carpet for a year. Real trees suck.
We got a good artificial one after that that lasted for many years. Every year it was the same story: get the incredibly heavy tree box out of the shed, bring it inside, and my mom would put it up. A few years later my sister and I were around to help. The lights were pretty old, so many of the colored bulbs had faded and gold turned to brilliant light yellow, hot pink to pale, strong green to a delicate shade. We had a string of blue lights going up through the middle, all varying lightness so some were dark and some were almost white, often with a blinker bulb. Honestly one thing I get wistful for sometimes is the way all those lights were such different colors because of what time had done to them, so hardly any two were alike. They built strings to last then.
Putting up ornaments was always a long event but it was fun, finding spots on the tree for every little thing we could.
Since I got married I’ve had my own tree. I recently had to retire the one I used for many years, which made me very sad because I haven’t found a good repalcement; it was a 7.5′ Douglas fir lookalike. I got a hinged tree after that that I hated, only put it up one year and now the box sits upstairs mocking me. After that I found a decent tree with the hook-style branches, which suffices and it’s nice and light, but it isn’t nearly as nice as my old tree. Sadly you can’t find anything but hinged or pre-lit trees anymore; I distrust pre-lit and hinged trees simply do not work well in the limited space I have. The search continues.
Christmas movies were on all the time in our house during the season. If we weren’t watching a movie, we watched tapes of the many TV specials that were on. Some of the favorite films at our house were Miracle on 34th Street, Holiday Inn, and Christmas in Connecticut. Over time we’ve discovered so many more of course. Christmas of ’89 was the first year I recall seeing A Christmas Story, which was on TV.
Something about the nights, just enjoying the time watching movies or specials, was magical. When I was a kid there was more of a carefree aspect to it, but I think this time was best understood as a combination of being in the moment reveling in the season, and feeling the increasing tension of knowing Christmas was inching closer.
I know you might be thinking: What about school, or homework? Well when I was still in public school I don’t recall this being a bad time of year. Review time for tests was actually great because it meant you didn’t have other assignments like a big paper to write; that is, there was no more stupid makework for a little bit, and you could breathe. Once homeschooling was underway, the schedule was a lot more flexible and it was even easier to get into enjoying the season.
I like snow; always have. I like it rather less as winter wears on, although a heavy fall is still nice to see. Once my family moved into the mobile home, we lived there for 16 years, and that was in a semi-rural area where almost everything was a 10- to 20-minute drive past lots of fields and hills. To say the landscape between Syracuse and Auburn along route 5 is breathtaking in the winter is a terrible understatement. It’s not bad in the fall, either.
Of course it made for harrowing driving. A few years around New Year’s we went to visit my dad’s friend who then lived in Poughkeepsie, a decently lengthy drive (like 4-5 hours), and on at least one occasion we nearly had to turn back because the snow was insane.
Another favorite memory I would normally have filed under “shopping” was one time we went out, just my mom and sister and me driven by a family friend, to the Carousel mall. The snow started coming down heavy while we were there, so the trip back was snow as far as the eye could see, in the dim light of late afternoon filtering through thick gray clouds. When it snows that thickly around here, and I can see it out the window, it makes me smile.
It helps that I don’t have a commute.
One of the major traditions my family had was the Christmas Eve ride. Wherever else we’d been that day, we went out and found streets with nice decorations and checked out what everyone had done, listening to Christmas music all the while. This was of course better when it was snowing, especially when you could see lights on bushes underneath an inch or so of snow.
Afterward we’d come back and my dad would read the story of Christ’s birth from the Bible, while we ate a cookie or two and perhaps had some egg nog. Then we’d give each other our family gifts, which was a nice way to end the night. Except the night didn’t really end there. Sometimes we’d sit back and enjoy something we had just opened, perhaps a movie, or otherwise just relaxed.
When I was looking back the other day and thinking of Christmastime memories, this might actually be my favorite single moment of the season—at least for many years. These days maybe it’s not the same, but when I was younger this was the time all the pressure was off. Yes we were excited for Christmas morning, but really it was all about the wind-down and trying to find a way to sleep. Lots of concentrated happiness had built up over the past month, and we knew the day to come—the week—would be happy too. Everyone always thinks of how antsy they were as kids, but I recall a lot of contentment too, coupled with a sense of adventure.
Come morning, the first thing we’d all do was grab a cookie or two to tide us over before breakfast. We’d all open our stockings, which frequently had a few small gifts tucked into them. (For years and years my sister and I had homemade felt stockings my mom had made for us when we were little, decorated uniquely for us.) Stockings were mostly a free-for-all. After that we’d all open gifts one at a time. This is still how it goes for us.
A big breakfast came next, usually waffles. Currently our tradition is a waffle breakfast, and I bring a cheese strata down that starts baking before we’re all quite done unwrapping.
Later we would do Christmas dinner, which was for me not really the highlight. It was always good, and I’ve of course mentioned my love of mashed potatoes. Hams were better in those days too. But spending too much time with extended family could wear after a while, especially with new presents waiting to be put to good use.
The week after
The week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve was always a fun time for me, although it was typically broken up a bit with other family gatherings. This was a mixed bag: more gifts of course, and I’d get to see my cousins which was fun. But gatherings on my mom’s side (long before the schism) grew increasingly hectic as I got older and more cousins appeared, and also sometimes we’d do those on New Year’s Day which was a terrible, terrible idea.
But when I was young, this was the time for enjoying gifts and taking it easy, and I still try to do that every year in my own way as an adult, since I’m blessed with a schedule that allows this. It means watching movies I don’t normally take the time for, cooking myself special savory treats, etc.
New Year’s Eve
I always loved this day especially. When I was a kid my parents threw New Year’s parties quite a lot, and it was all good food, marathons of the Three Stooges or the Twilight Zone, and lots of board games. There was a span of a few years where we went to Poughkeepsie as I mentioned, and a couple where my sister and I went to a party thrown by our church’s youth group (which was pretty great actually, although when you have to stay up till 7 or 8 in the morning it’s amazing how taxing that is, even when you’re young); after that we went back to having parties at our house, but mainly for my cousins instead of my parents’ friends.
During one of those church parties I went to work on the Klax arcade cabinet they had there, and I beat the game. It was freaking incredible and I’ve never been able to repeat that achievement.
Lots of good memories of late-night fun of course. I really love board games, and back when I had the stamina to party so long I could be up for hours. Even at 4 or so when I got punchy, it was still good times. One year my cousin and I invented Fake Scrabble, which is basically Scrabble where the word has to sound like a word but can’t be a real word, and you have to make up a definition. Very fun at 4 in the morning. Also I recall playing You Don’t Know Jack into the wee hours.
Nowadays, some years a cousin of mine hosts a party, but at my parents’ the party has become a lot quieter over the years. Lots of people don’t stay as long, and of course not living there anymore I have a drive home to make too. Plus it’s weird: I’ve become so nocturnal I routinely stay up till 3 or 4, but at a party I start to hit the wall a lot earlier. I think it takes a lot out of me.
New Year’s Day was always a much simpler affair, the last calm before going back to school. This was one of the rare times I saw my dad get to relax, when there was nothing going on. We never had any specific traditions for this day, because really who does? It was simply the end of the season.
The tree always stayed up till the 6th, at least. I forget why, but I believe it’s some kind of obscure Catholic holiday connected to Christmas. My family is not Catholic, although my dad was raised that way. Really the 6th is just an excuse to keep the tree up longer.
So that, hardly in brief, is a big jumbled partial summary of some of my favorite parts of the season and why it means so much to me.