Dear Faithful Readers and Newcomers,
Greetings and good tidings of great joy to each of you! I am so thankful to have this platform to share my thoughts and feelings about all things architecture and other related topics.
I’m sure many of you are doing the same as my family and I are– getting into high gear for your final Christmas and holiday preparations. My husband and I don’t always agree on what to buy or how much to spend. No, really! ;) And because we are from different cultures, sometimes our reference points don’t align. So, this past Sunday night, after attending one of the most beautiful sermons on the meaning of Christmas titled ‘Christmas for Kids’ delivered by Pastor and Author Gary Thomas, having brunch, getting some necessary shopping done (and taking in the beautiful sights), my daughter and I attended the special Christmas program at my mom’s church. After an eventful day, it was time to stop and reflect on what were our exact plans for this coming week to get ready for Christmas at our house.
In a family as diverse as ours, it is often a Herculean task to get everyone “on the same page” or, at least, find ways to connect with them in meaningful ways that allow ample time to just be together without a big production.
So, I decided to tell my husband- after celebrating 25 Christmases together- just what Christmas means to me. When I started to tell him, he rushed in- as men sometimes do to solve the problem before hearing it- and said, “I already know what it means: it means spending a lot of money and getting a bunch of gifts for everyone. Well, we’ve already bought plenty of things, I see no reason to put ourselves under pressure to do even more!”
Expecting to hear this, I said, “No, that’s not what I’m talking about.” His reply was, “I know it means Jesus in the manger.” I said, “Well of course, and I know you already know the Christmas story.”
But what I really wanted to convey to him was what Christmas meant to me personally, how did my family celebrate it and just what was it that made it so special.
In a word, it was the element of surprise, that spectacular anticipation of what would be found under the tree or setting in the room on Christmas morning. Every one of us Americans take this for granted. We get it. But for someone who was raised in a country where the belief is predominantly non-Christian, where they do not celebrate Christmas and Santa doesn’t deliver gifts through their chimneys, this element of surprise and anticipation is well…it’s missing.
I didn’t realize this until after our daughter was born and we came upon her first Christmas where she was a walking toddler, my husband and I were not connecting on how to create that special Christmas magic and it broke my heart. I ordered 3 special toys, one of them a mini-chaise lounge chair in pink and white gingham engraved with her name on it; the other a set of cardboard bricks (for the budding architect), and a set of wood blocks. They arrived in a huge box and lots of Styrofoam wrap and my husband simply thought I had gone over the top! He went to bed at midnight and did not stay up to help me set up the toys from Santa.
That was the heartbreaking part.
So, the next morning, he generously brought out his gifts that he’d purchased unbeknownst to me from the Disney store- a little jewelry box, some special princess shoes, and a little girls cap (surprise to me!). He couldn’t wait to give them to her directly. Nevermind Santa Claus.
Here we are 10 years later, and we’re getting better about setting up our traditions– collaboratively, in unity, creating that special element of surprise together rather than in competition. Only this year, we’ve gotten a very late start. The Grinch has tried very hard to steal Christmas, but we won’t let him. Because Christmas is not about material things, it’s about something far deeper.
This past Sunday night, I started to rattle off my battle plans for going shopping on a mission– only I wasn’t sure for whom and for what (like I said, our diverse family had not yet had a chance to let us know their schedules– they’ve got others to answer to as well…), and he reminded me of the outfit we’d just bought for our daughter at J Crew (it’s simply adorable; I’d not shopped there before, it was a new experience for me– I’m still trying to understand their fashion concepts, but the complementery personal shopper was a godsend, picking out just the right pieces). Anyhow, he was envisioning another big shopping day and a visa card bill to go with it. He needed to vent.
When he finished his sentence, I said, “Please, let me paint the picture of what Christmas meant to me as a child. Please listen to me with an open heart and an open mind. It’s not what you think!”
He acquiessed and listened. This is what I shared:
When I was a young girl, what meant the most to me about Christmas were the little details and traditions that announced, “It’s Christmas.” Each year, we’d pull out the traditional Christmas ornaments, wreaths, and garland. One memorable item was a winter floral decoration built atop a piece of green squishy styrofoam. Each year, it grew a bit more tattered and lost more berries and gold glitter; but, we weren’t ready to part with it. It was a part of our family. And the ornaments- none of them matched- but each one had a special meaning; my favorite was the antique gold and off-white haind-painted wooden carousel that I took pleasure in hanging in just the right spot. One of the horses was missing, but we wouldn’t consider parting with it.
And at my public elementary school one of my best memories is of our entire 4th grade class visiting the local nursing home, walking through the halls and singing Christmas Carols to the lonely residents. Words cannot express how much joy this brought to me.
Going caroling was a big tradition that continued through the years. No matter if it was snowing or sleeting or we had to drive and walk on icy patches in 30 degree (and colder) weather, we would head out (either as a class from our school or as a Sunday School class or youth group from our church) and sing for various neighborhoods. We would head back and share some cookies and hot cocoa and bask in the afterglow of the moment.
And the presents. Mom finally figured out that my brother and I knew where she hid the gifts, so she found a better way to “hide” them- in full view- only wrapped. Like all kids, we would shake them and weigh them in our hands, trying to guess if it was a puzzle (easy to tell!), a game, book, or clothes.
I cherished the nights when ‘Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer’ or ‘Frosty the Snowman’ was on TV while mom made Hot Milk Cake or Custard or prepared some other favorite holiday treat while my brother and I warmed by the fire in our lower level family room amidst the drafts that entered through the back door cracks, the snow piled so high you couldn’t see out the ground-level windows. The wind sometimes howled.
But it was cozy. And anticipation was in the air.
After a season of shopping downtown, purchasing onion buns and white fondant with nuts in Lazarus’s Deli, eating them on the drive home, passing the snow-fallen lawns and listening to the “Little Drummer Boy” or some other holiday song interspersed between the regular Top 40, it was finally Christmas Eve.
Mom was the church choir director one Christmas and put together a candlelit cantata that year. It was so beautiful. She directed, wearing a long ivory-colored gown with gold sequin trim and a matching bolero jacket. I took it all in- the music, the ambiance, the reverence- even at that young age.
After wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, our family would rush home to watch the newscast to make sure Santa was on his way while mom put the finishing preparations together for the Christmas meal. We usually invited my uncle and his family and my grandparents, who lived in the city about 45 minutes away, to join us.
About two weeks before Christmas, my brother and I would have already received the most prized gifts of all- those sent to us from our grandmother in West Virginia. They arrived in brown wrapping with string to secure it and a red and white label addressed to “Miss Tara” or “Master Michael.” She usually sent me a cute outfit she’d picked out; one year there was an extra item down in there- a silver jewelry box lined with red velvet.
I hold this special gift very dear to my heart as it is one of the few things I have left of my grandmother; I’m sure she could not have known the significance of this box the day she picked it out and sent it so many years ago.
One year, the economy was down, but my brother and I didn’t know this until we were visiting my paternal grandparents one night after Thanksgiving and I overhead the adults talking in the small family room in the back of the house, barely audible over the typcial prime time line-up; but I will never forget hearing my father break down into tears, saying how this year, having been between jobs (he was an Electrical Engineer), he did not know how he was going to buy any gifts for my brother and me.
I kept quiet about it. But, I was hesitant heading down the stairs to see what Santa had brought that year. It was meager, yes, but it ended up being one of the best Christmas’s ever. Their was a doll’s head for hairstyling, a special jewelry box with a chain necklace inside, and my favorite: a pad of drawing paper and a set of pastels.
When my grandparents arrived, they brought a box filled with more presents– I always marveled at the retro-style wrapping paper colors and patterns and couldn’t wait to tear into them.
The best part was hearing the footsteps of four people coming up the walkway…yes, it was my uncle and his family. He and his wife and his mother-in-law often had their moments of disagreement throughout the day, but we always laughed about it later. The ladies would stay in the kitchen, putting the meal on the table, doing the dishes and preparing the desserts. While the men would hang out in the lower level family room by the fire, watching the parade or the latest football game.
One year, my aunt recorded our conversation around the table. For some reason- luckily, I guess- that year, we talked mostly about airplanes for some reason! It was somewhat of a boring recording after all– none of the dischordant chatter she might have been anticipating!
So, that is what Christmas meant to me. It wasn’t about getting the newest gadget, toy, or game (not entirely). It was about the traditions of singing carols, spending time with the special people in our lives, making certain foods, gathering together to make others happy, and simply being together. It had nothing to do with materialism or how many gifts were under the tree.
It was the special, quirky things I remember with the most fondness– like how my father would start his Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve morning and not a moment sooner– mostly to buy the stocking stuffers. It was always a hoot to empty my stocking and see Junior Mints, Bonne Belle lipsmacker, a special pen, and other what-nots. He had a funny sense of humor about him. And he always bought eggnog. I thought it tasted like paint and I told him so, but still I drank it (would wash it down with a savory bite of sausage and cheese puffs). And he always put up the Christmas lights- no matter how bitter cold it was! Yes, the ladder was wobbly, his fingers would turn white and red and sometimes a stray staple might nick him. And no one cared if the lights were not always in order: purple, green, red, yellow, blue, white, purple, green, red, yellow, blue, white…
It might not have been the picture-perfect “Courier and Ives” Christmas image, but it was our Christmas tradition and it wouldn’t have been Christmas to me any other way.
What are some of your family’s special traditions?
I hope they’re as meaningful as ours were.
Cheers to starting new traditions and kindling happy memories for our kids to cherish (on their blogs, iPhones, and online photo albums) in years to come!
Merry Christmas (and Happy Hannukah) to you and your loved ones!!!