One of my earliest Christmas memories is peering through the tiny windows of a ceramic gingerbread house. The fragile house, decorated with candy canes and gumdrops, looked good enough to eat, but what really captivated me was its glow: With the flick of a switch, the whole house lit up, so I truly believed that a little cookie family lived inside. And why not? Christmas is a time of wonder and belief, and children, with their infinite capacity for wonder, remind us how to believe. Now that I’m grown, I find joy watching my own children peek through those same windows, whispering “Merry Christmas!” to the cookie family. After all, just because we can’t see them, doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
A hilariously cherished part of our annual holiday celebrations is a White Elephant Gift Exchange. The rules are simple: 1) Your wrapped gift must be something you already have that you no longer want. 2) You must take whatever gift you receive home. My whole
family piles up the white elephant presents and sits in a circle around them every Christmas Eve. Over the years there have been big belly laughs when receiving such gems as a box of old keys, a Christmas tree ornament that wouldn’t stop singing, a hideous wizard wind chime (that has shown up more than once!), and much more. I both laugh and cringe to wonder what I’ll get this year.
To celebrate the birth of Christ in a humble manger, our family would sleep in the hay loft of our barn on Christmas Eve. The smells and sounds of barn life all through the night truly made for an authentic experience. And though we didn’t have a crying newborn baby, there was plenty of crying about the cold, which kept us close as ever until Christmas morning. The first year my own children were old enough to participate was truly a special Christmas memory. The smell of the barn would linger in our clothes as we celebrated, but the memory of that unique tradition will remain all my life.
The year was 1976, and my parents had just built a brand new house. New, except for everything in it was made to look like it was 1776: three huge brick fireplaces, teeny-tiny kitchen, pine plank floors, beamed ceilings. (They took that bicentennial year to extremes.) But the best thing about living that way was that, at Christmas, the 1700s also applied to our transportation. My fondest Christmas memory was hitching up our shaggy horses to an antique sleigh, pimping the mares out in jingling sleigh bells, the family cuddling up under a bearskin rug, and driving the team three miles to my cousins’ house for Christmas Eve. I’m sure it was freezing. (It was Minnesota, after all). But my memories of that night are nothing but warm.
I was in my early teens when I stumbled across this book about N. C. Wyeth. My head nearly exploded at the realization that this artist whose work I loved from books was a real person who made his living as an illustrator. It was very expensive, so I read as much of it as I could in the bookstore. On Christmas morning my head nearly exploded a second time when the book appeared under the tree. That was it: I decided to become a book illustrator. Thanks mum and dad!
My Grandpa Sam loved Christmas movies. I used to sit with him for hours on the weekends as he watched reruns of The Bells of Saint Mary’s, The Bishop’s Wife and Boys Town on his old black and white television in our two-family home in the Bronx.
“Why do you like Christmas movies so much?” I asked. My unspoken question was, why would a Jewish man who’d fled anti-Semitism in Russia enjoy sentimental stories about priests and nuns? “Everybody is so nice to each other in these movies,” he said blissfully. That’s when I realized that what my grandfather believed in more than anything else was kindness. I squeezed his hand and we enjoyed the movies together.