When I was a kid, this was without doubt the most happy, exciting week of the year. I’ll admit it had little to do with the true reason for the celebration, the religious one, it was really about two things: the decorations and the presents.
I loved the whole Christmas decorating process, from getting the tree at the tree lot through opening the boxes of family ornaments, to putting them on the tree just so. Then the lights were turned on, and it was magical. Remember bubble lights? I loved them.
The music was another thing I loved, as a kid I never tired of those songs, the big traditional ones like “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” sung by big choir – probably the beginnings of my love of choral music – to the more folksy ones like “Frosty the Smowman”, “Jingle Bells” and all the rest.
But it was the presents that I, like every kid, really was excited about. I mean, lots of stuff, wrapped in bright paper so it was a mystery, and with MY name on the tag. In my family, a few things would be under the tree once it was up and decorated, but the majority of things appeared after we kids, or at least the younger ones, were in bed.
Our family didn’t open gifts on Christmas eve, and it always seemed to me that to do so was some kind of violation of the Christmas Rules. I mean, it wasn’t Christmas yet, right? If you could open them the day before, why not the week before? The month before? There also were rules about Christmas morning. No one was allowed up before 6:00 a.m. and then it was stockings only. I remember lying awake listening to the cuckoo clock in my aunt and uncle’s house (we alternated Christmases with them so were there every other year), waiting to hear it strike the six o’clock hour, when I would leap from the bed (those were the days) and go get my stocking. In the dim morning light I would delve deep into it, removing one item after another, all the way into the toe. There was always a small toy and a sweet of some kind. What fun!
The real gift opening only happened after Christmas breakfast, which was an Event in our family. Since one or the other family was driving from the Carmel-Monterey area to southern California, a stop was always made at Birkholm’s Bakery in Solvang, – now, sadly, gone – so along with the eggs, bacon and such was an extravagant flaky pastry selection, or occasionally a single one large enough to serve all eight of us.
Then finally, after breakfast had been eaten and the dishes washed, came the opening of gifts. More rules. One of the children was picked to take the presents from under the tree and give them to the recipient. As the youngest, I didn’t get this honor for a long time, so I would sit as still as possible while someone else opened their present, exclaimed over it, heard from the giver about it, then we went to the next gift, making sure each person had opened one before anyone got another. It took a long time, as you can imagine, but to this day it seems like the best process, far more civilized than the mad tearing open of the packages as portrayed in the film A Christmas Story.
One particular Christmas morning stands clear in my memory: the time I came downstairs to see (but not touch until after breakfast!) an American Flyer train set up and ready to run in a circle around the tree. I was as excited as I could be, and there was no danger that I’d shoot my eye out.
This year my “big presents” aren’t wrapped: new home, new furniture, new TV and other electronics, more things than I can – or want to try to – list here. Other than some cards on the mantel we don’t even have decorations, this year. That’s okay, I have all those great memories!