From a friend’s grandson I hear that the spirit of Santa Claus is more important than the gifts.

My minister reminds me to think about why the holy-day came to be (when was Christ-mass first celebrated anyhow?). My younger brother and older sister help me remember childhood Christmases when we were only three, six (and a half) and seven (and three-quarters). What do we really recall and what comes from the photographs? Does it matter? Some parts of Christmas stayed the same for us for decades:

Our parents made Christmas special. Not because of the number or cost of the gifts we received, but because of the sentiment surrounding the giving.

Christmas at our home was a production in every good sense of the word.

  • Church was midnight mass with Mom.
  • I found tiny songbooks full of hymns and got my family to sing several of them one Christmas Eve as we sat around the fanciful pine tree.
  • We ate cookies for breakfast. Still legal in my home, but only for the holidays.
  • One of us would wake up, run through the house to the family room and check: Santa had come! That one would wake another kid, then another kid and traipse into our parents’ bedroom. Were they ever asleep with three sets of toddler-sized feet running through the house? Santa came! Always patient, they’d respond, Wait in the kitchen, no going in the room! Patience from us? Who were they kidding? We’d stand outside the family room, looking in wonder at the tree, the colorful packages, maybe see the edge of an unwrapped gift that signaled it had come directly from Santa.
  • “Turn the lights on!” Mom would say. Each kid took a room, dashing to plug in Christmas lights so that our neighbors (most of them family) would see: Oh, Gilbert and Mary’s kids are up!

The time on the clock never mattered to our parents.

One Christmas, Jackie or I (Joey was too little to have done this) woke up at two-thirty in the morning. There was no brightly decorated tree in the living room when we went to bed. We were worried and barely slept. No packages peeked out from hidden corners of the family room. That morning, both sisters now awake, little girls barely grown out of their Dr. D’s tiptoed into our parents’ room. We each took a parent and shook a shoulder: Santa came! Groggily, we got a response, saw a glance at the clock, a moan from one of them. “Okay, girls, get your brother up.”

Yes, our parents got out of bed. They plugged in the coffee pot while we plugged in Christmas lights. We ate cookies while they drank full-tilt coffee. We had a really long Christmas Day.

Another favorite Christmas tradition

One of my favorite parts of unwrapping gifts—which we did during Dad’s last Christmas with us—is destroying the wrappings. We made a colored explosion of paper throughout the room. Our parents forbade us from neatly unwrapping presents and delicately saving the paper. “Rip in!” They’d say. “Have fun!” “Make a mess!”

I remember laughing, laughing, and much more laughing as we enjoyed spending special time together.

Isn’t that kind of behavior–simple celebrations–the spirit of Christmas?

Those joys of family sharing the December 25th holiday has stayed with me and my siblings.

I’m teaching it to Alex as we have another Christmas together. His upbringing was different from mine, but he’s learning that it’s never about the amount a gift costs, it’s about the thought that goes into giving it. Our first year, he got me a green—my favorite color—backpack for day hikes. It’s perfect!

The rest of our childhood Christmas days would go like this:

  • Church. It was important to our parents that we understood the meaning of the day: that it was about Christ’s birth, not the Santa Claus legend. (Like the Easter Bunny and Christ’s resurrection, I never understood the connection between St Nick and the birth of Jesus. I always strove to make a connection, to tie the two together in my kid-brain. I never got there.)
  • A simple dinner mid-afternoon. Isn’t the joy of breaking bread a part of Christmas?
  • Dad’s parents would walk across the dead-end road, named after Grandpa’s family, and patiently sit with each child as we showed them every gift and explained why we’d gotten it. Isn’t that sort of indulgence a part of Christmas?
  • There’d be visiting at one of Dad’s sibling’s homes or at our own. With two brothers and two sisters in close proximity (the other sister far away), there was no limit to the chaos. And that was with adults who hadn’t yet had the two kids each they’d wind up with! (Okay, cousins, maybe one or two of you were babies….)

Being with Family and Friends at Christmas Means Everything

The year Mom died and Dad was deep into his battle with ALS by Christmastime, I realized what the holy-day had always boiled down to. Christmas is a celebration of joy, family, ultimate giving by God of a son into our world, and teaching us complete, unconditional love.

Scrooge, before his journey of enlightenment, states vehemently, “You keep Christmas in your way and I will keep it in mine!”

We each have our own traditions, our own ways of enjoying family and friends during the upcoming holidays … that’s as individual as our DNA. I hope, though, in the midst of the commercialism hoisted on us and the pressure by marketers to give more, spend bigger … that we take time to consider why we are celebrating December 25th. Why is this a date that dominates much of the world? Why do we light up our “inns” with colors and brightness?

Those answers, sharing with others what the day means to you … are the most important reasons for keeping Christmas, aren’t they?

Let me know what Christmas means to you…

Black & white picture of 3 kids at Christmas tree in 1965
Jackie, RM, Joey somewhere mid 1960s.

* Read: Ah, to a Red Lodge Christmas Stroll and here