Christmas, among its many guises, is foremost a season of nostalgia. No other holiday draws from the well of tradition quite like Christmas. The gifts are more numerous, the lights are LED, the songs have been rearranged and the feast has truly become glutinous but all remain echoes of our own past and those of generations before.
Christmas Eve Rituals
The tug of memory only amplifies when we have kids of our own. We willfully don our rose-coloured glasses and endeavour to recreate those perfect Christmases from when our age required only a single digit to denote. Awkward family photos, ghastly sweaters, meltdowns in malls, and fights with siblings over envied toys are forgotten in favour of the warm glow of laughter, joy and excitement. It’s all the very best kind of delusion.
My wife and I have gone about mixing and matching our various family traditions, sprinkled in a few oldies but goodies from others, and created our own Christmas experience that our kids will hopefully look back upon fondly in decades to come. Judging by their excitement levels each December, we’re successful thus far.
Unfortunately, some family traditions must fall by the wayside be it by choice or circumstance. True to our German roots, Christmas Eve was the focal point of Christmas for the Schmidt family in my youth. The whole family would go to the local Lutheran church for a candle light service in the early evening. This was the only church going day I actually enjoyed and looked forward too, mostly for the candles, but also because the church would be remarkably full and the men would sing bass during “Joy to the World” which fascinated me.
Afterwards, once the intolerable greeting line finally made its way out of the church, we’d head over to my grandparents’ place for food and drink and gift opening in the upstairs den (don’t ask). Grandma would put out myriad little dishes and trays of various snacks and treats which we would collectively devour. My parents and aunts and uncles were still young then and would more often than not get a little tipsy and lot jovial. And most importantly, my sister and I would get to stay up very, VERY late. It was better than New Year’s Eve!
Eventually we’d make our way back home and have the inevitable fight with mom and dad about wanting to open more gifts. Usually they would resist our pleading and get us to bed making us wait for Christmas morning to open the rest of our booty.
Sadly, none of this is part of the Christmas routine anymore; church isn’t part of my family life, grandpa and grandma are gone, and I moved thousands of kilometers from home. Perhaps some traditions come with an expiry date and are best preserved as fond memories only?
But without a doubt, the single most amazing tradition my family had when I was a kid is also one that I wouldn’t dream of recreating for my own kids. It too occurred on Christmas Eve before we even made it to church or grandma and grandpa’s house. This was a very special tradition meant only for my sister and I.
The annual pilgrimage to the mall to sit on Santa’s knee and share our most desired toy with the jolly elf was a well established ritual back in the 70s and 80s. We did this, but not every year, and now as a parent myself I fully understand why. Santa also showed up at the children’s Christmas party my dad’s employer hosted and we’d get a little gift from him there. My wife’s employer continues this custom but our kids are too terrified to go anywhere near the big man, this despite their writing letters to him and losing their collective minds over his mysterious delivering of the exact gift they asked for each Christmas morning.
There was, however, another occasion for meeting Santa in my childhood. Despite their modest lives my parents had some significant pull at the North Pole. Every year on Christmas Eve, right around supper time, Santa Claus would show up at our home to visit with me and my sister and give us our gift in person. That takes serious clout when you consider that they got Santa to make a house call outside of his delivery schedule on his absolute busiest night of the year!
Granted, he drove a Buick and came into the house via the garage door, but I suppose his sled was still up north being loaded for the big night of deliveries. The reindeer no doubt needed to preserve their energy for the upcoming round-the-world trip.
It was a terrific, touching tradition and one I affectionately remember despite being scared silly more than once when a bellowing ‘Ho Ho Ho’ and sudden ringing of jingle bells would fill the house as I scooted past the doorway to the basement unaware of his having arrived.
Who Is This Santa?
You’d think an awesome tradition like that would be at the top of my list of things I’d wish to recreate for my own kids. Here is the reason why it isn’t nor ever will be. To this very day my parents have no idea who this Santa was.
My mother was once given a phone number with no name attached and she would call this number each December to set up the magical visit. Just a stranger, an unknown man, at the end of a rotary dial phone number who’d show up the evening of Christmas Eve as Santa Claus to interact with her children.
My sister and I would take turns sitting on his knee in our living room, he’d ask the obligatory questions about our behavior during the year and what we wanted for Christmas, then he’d give us a gift which my parents had hidden in the garage for him to pick up on the way into the house. Then he would leave the way he came.
It is such a cool memory and seems so wildly out of place in these modern times of fear and paranoia. I’m sure some families have a grandpa or father or even a family friend dress up as Santa for the kids but for a complete stranger to do so is truly remarkable.
I wish I knew who he was because he was likely a wonderful man giving his time on Christmas Eve like that. Then again, I’m glad I don’t. Lore is better with a bit of mystery.