My father, who dreaded Christmas, was happy to turn all the Christmas chores over to me, his elder daughter. I was a motherless girl. We lived far from the possible help of cousins, aunts and uncles. The first time Dad took me to the store to buy Christmas presents, I was 7 years old. I had to choose gifts for everybody, including myself. So much for Santa.
I was in charge of everything. Decorating the tree meant I perched precariously atop a ladder. I placed the ornaments and layered on tinsel until the tree shimmered with silver. I was a little tyrant. I insisted that each strand be pulled out of its cardboard holder one by one and placed evenly over the branches. If I had to do the job it was going to be done my way, the right way.
As time goes by we change our family patterns. We move. Children marry. Babies are born. People die. The good news is that we replace old ways with new practices, some of which stick year after year, becoming tradition. Like me, my children also spent their holidays far from extended family. Unlike me, my kids never had to shop for their own presents. In an unspoken family agreement, we keep the myth of Santa alive. Ask them. To this day they will tell you, “Of course, Santa lives at the North Pole with his elves, busily making toys in his workshop. He’ll be coming down the chimney Christmas Eve. He’ll want his glass of milk and plate of cookies.”
Our family Christmas trees have not always been traditional. Sure, we decorated the usual cedar, pine or fir; then one year a naked Alder branch, and another year, a gigantic tumbleweed. In search of the perfect tree, we tromped through the woods, ax in hand, or drove to the Christmas tree farm. Other years we picked trees from the Boy Scout lot on the corner.
All were glorious. Perfect, no. I lost my need for perfection somewhere along the way. Each child decorated the branches he or she could reach in a rather random way, tossing on handfuls of tinsel. The bottom of the tree was every bit as wonderful as Mom’s precise branches at the top. One lean year, our tree was a construction paper cutout my son had made in Head Start. For decorations he had pasted on confetti-like bits. I treasured that tree. After my son was married, I gave it to him. He still has that faded tree, and in the tradition we began years ago, tapes it to his refrigerator door every Christmas season.
Once my children were grown and on their own, I enjoyed dipping into our family past at our holiday celebrations. I gathered my adult kids around me and read to them their favorite childhood nursery rhymes from Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses” and Kipling’s “The Elephant’s Child.” I have made sure my grandchildren have their own copies of these treasured books.
Even when I could, I never heaped gifts beneath our tree. But each child always had a gift Santa had left on his midnight run through the heavens, usually a much-desired toy. And a gift or two from Mom, always including clothing and some item I had made myself. The paper and ribbon were never perfectly done. Today, my children are as apt as I am to wrap gifts in newsprint or brown paper bags decorated with crayons.
Our most memorable Christmas, the time I chose the very best gifts, was the year I sorted through my boxes of photographs and divided them into piles for each of my children, now adults with partners. I purchased albums and photo file boxes for each, put all this into larger boxes, wrapped them and placed them beneath the tree. When assembled for breakfast, I read those old favorite stories. Then we opened our presents. My kids spent the entire rest of the day sharing their photos. “Remember the day this was taken?” And “Oh, I’d forgotten about that.” Or “Look at the expression on my face.” Each picture triggered recollections. They especially loved their baby pictures, which gave me a chance to tell them about times they were too young to remember.
We are now scattered to different parts of the country. But I know each of my children carry on those family traditions that they loved most, blend these with the customs generated from their spouses’ families, and create their new customs along the way, continually building a living family culture.
(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High in 1963 and left for good. She finds, after returning, things now look a bit different. Join her in a discussion of her column at http://montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com.)