It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeer. But there were cats.
Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales
Our annual holiday celebrations have changed over the years, like many of you whose children are adults with families of their own. Many times, we’ve traveled to spend the holiday with one or the other daughter; or, depending on who is living where in the world, they have come to us. This year will be the first in a long while, that we are not only staying put, but happily enjoying the holiday in place with our eldest daughter and her family, who live close by. Our move back to Toronto signaled another change in family holiday traditions. I divided the dozens of tree ornaments between both daughters, ones our family collected since their infancy, so they can carry on the tradition of hanging the old ornaments and share their memories with their children. We have a tree ourselves, but it’s barely four feet tall and sits in front of the fireplace screen, scantily decorated with a single string of lights and a handful of leftover ornaments neither daughter claimed. (Granddaughter Flora helped us decorate the little tree, but she insists it be moved before Christmas eve. “You’re blocking the fireplace, Gramma, and Santa will not be able to get in to your house!”)
Christmas trees lined like war refugees,
a fallen army made to stand in their greens.
Cut down at the foot, on their last leg,
they pull themselves up, arms raised…
given a single blanket,
only water to drink, surrounded by joy.
Forced to wear a gaudy gold star,
to surrender their pride,
they do their best to look alive.
(From “Christmas Tree Lots,” by Chris Green, Poetry, 2001)
The holiday season is also bittersweet in its way, reminding me of how much has changed as our daughters grew into adulthood, married, and had children of their own–and how, as my husband and I grow older, the family celebrations take on more poignancy and meaning.
At the same time, I have the joy of celebrating holidays with grandchildren, reading The Night before Christmas together, baking cookies or gingerbread, adding clever little surprises to their stockings, and Christmas morning, sharing in the excitement of opening packages. Yet there’s nostalgia too, and the season, no matter the traditions we celebrate, stirs up the memories of holidays past.
…Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang “Cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake’s Drum.” It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. (From: “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” By Dylan Thomas)
Whether music, special food, the Festival of Lights and Hanukkah candles lit one by one or Christmas trees adorned with multi-colored lights and ornaments, holiday traditions ignite the memories of past celebrations. We drove home from an evening with friends on Friday evening, and saw our neighborhood glowing and alive with colored lights and decorations. I felt a wave of nostalgia, my mind filled with memories of long ago Christmas times, and how, as a child, our family would climb in our Ford station wagon each year, driving through our small Northern California town to admire the magic of houses adorned with multi-colored lights.
I kindled my eight little candles,
My Hanukkah candles, and lo!
Fair visions and dreams half-forgotten
Were rising of years long ago.
(From: “Hanukkah Lights,” by Philip Raskin)
Yet the holiday memories are often tinged more than our remembrance of childish wonder. There are wistful ones, tinged with sadness. The holidays often carry other recollections besides those of comfort and joy. I laugh about how we got our little three this year from the corner store, a far cry from my father’s traditional trek into the snowy wilderness nearby to cut the perfect tree–although it never was perfect enough for my exacting mother’s tastes, and there were annual complaints over its shape or placement of the lights. Gradually, although none of us liked it at the time, our mother’s annual disappointment became as much of a part of our holiday traditions just as singing carols, hanging stockings or opening gifts on Christmas mornings. They have now become part of the stories we tell—and re-tell every December when we decorate the tree.
As children, we knew there was more to it –
Why some men got drunk on Christmas Eve
Wasn’t explained, nor why we were so often
Near tears nor why the stars came down so close,
Why so much was lost. Those men and women
Who had died in wars started by others,
Did they come that night? Is that why the Christmas
Trembled just before we opened the presents?
(From: “A Christmas Poem,” by Robert Bly, in Morning Poems,1998)
Whatever your holiday traditions of celebration, this is a season full of memories and stories–ones that may even be told and re-told at every family holiday celebration. What memories are triggered by the December holiday season? The lighting of the Hanukkah candles, potato latkes, gingerbread, tree decorations or the smell of pine? Remember the holidays you celebrated as a child, a particularly significant time, and as many of the details that come to mind: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch. There is so much about the holidays that ignites our senses and our memories.
Our annual prairie Chanukah party—
latkes, kugel, cherry blintzes.
Friends arrive from nearby towns
and dance the twist to “Chanukah Lights Tonight,”
spin like a dreidel to a klezmer hit.
The candles flicker in the window.
Outside, ponderosa pines are tied in red bows.
If you squint,
the neighbors’ Christmas lights
look like the Omaha skyline.
(From: “Chanukah Lights Tonight,” by Steven Schneider, in: Prairie Air Show, 2000)
Let your memories be the inspiration to write about holidays past—traditions you remember fondly, the people who were important to you, the family celebrations or even the family celebrations that were unpleasant or memorable in other ways. Begin by making a quick list of specific recollections that come to mind. Read them over. What are the stories attached to each? Write the one that holds the most power for you.