Every generation has its best memories of Christmas. Those with yearly holiday family reunions probably have lifetimes of scattered Christmas memories on a mental mix-tape of humorous and Kodak moments from many past years. I have many great memories, many of which recall Christmases celebrated with my wife.
My sense of Christmas celebrations, though, comes from the magic of December 25th as my parents conjured the day on an always-tight budget. We almost always had a spruce tree in a corner of the living room. The ornaments on it had been collected for many years by my father and mother and their parents. Since our Christmas tree lights were often lent to the schools we attended, our tree about December 25th went up after the lights came home from school.
Gifts arriving by mail, or delivered from in-town friends, went under the tree whenever they showed up. Ultimately, my two brothers and I would put gifts we bought for family members there. Most of the gifts showed up sometime between bed time on the 24th and when we were allowed to see the tree on the 25th.
On Christmas morning, the living room was kept dark until after breakfast. I could have done well enough with a bowl of Frosted Flakes. Mother always wanted to serve a full breakfast because (a) that’s what her mother and/or home economics classes taught her to do, (b) she really believed we would go hungry waiting for Christmas dinner if we didn’t start the day full, (c) this gave everyone’s anticipation time to build.
Some families seem to ring a starting bell after which everyone dives under the tree and opens his or her own gifts without paying much attention to what the others are doing. I like our tradition better: we took turns opening gifts as my father handed them out one by one. He engineered the whole thing so that the most spectacular gifts were opened last.
It’s hard for me to visualize Christmas any other way. As I got older, I realized how much work it was for my parents to create the magic. It was mainly for my brothers and I. After one becomes a parent, the focus changes on buying for one’s children, grandchildren, and friends. When families live in different parts of the country, this includes buying gifts early enough to wrap and mail them in time for Christmas.
Now, we’re the ones trying to conjure the magic. We can’t really re-create the Christmases we had when we were kids, though I think those long-ago days probably influence what our children experience–without the 78rpm records and movies on video tape. We have to give a wink and a nod to progress without turning the day into a commercialized mess.
I grew up in Florida where we seldom saw snow. Even so, this is how I still see Christmas–perhaps because of that song we all know.
I have no idea what songs kids listen to during the holidays now. I see that many of our old favorites such as “White Christmas,” which first appeared in the movie “Holiday Inn,” have been re-recorded by numerous singers since 1942. I grew up with Bing Crosby’s version, so that’s the one I like to hear. In part, I visualize Christmas as it was in “Holiday Inn” and the subsequent movie “White Christmas.” All this was, so to speak, the “what-Christmas-is-like standard” I was born into.
Later generations may see Christmas as it was in “The Polar Express” with Tom Hanks or “A Wonderful Life” with Jimmy Stewart or “Scrooged” with Billy Murray. A lot of people remember the hymns they hear in church or the carols they sing in high school choral productions or when they go caroling. Maybe their memories include “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Snoopy’s Christmas.”
You probably have your “this is Christmas” favorites of holiday movies and sings. How many of them come from what you saw at the theater or heard on the radio when you were in primary and secondary school?
I never could imagine what my parents might have listened to when they were children; I’m sure our kids can’t imagine what we listened to when we were young even though they can now Google about anything and see what was popular year after year. No doubt, somebody, somewhere has written a doctoral dissertation showing what percentage of Christmas songs kids listen to are brand new and what percentage are classics. I’m not going to go and look that up for this post.
I admit I’ve played Diana Krall’s Christmas album a lot since it came out ten years ago. I like jazz, and she does just fine with a fresh look at old favorites. I doubt that today’s youth is concentrating on jazz, so their Christmases will probably be formed out of other memories while their children last year and this year and next year. I like Christmas, Winter, and snow, so my memories come from childhood filled with spruce trees and movies and songs created before I was born.
We conjure Christmas for our children and for others who are special to us. Our perspective has shifted from “what am I going to get” to “what am I going to give.” As we grow up, we begin to understand the magic from inside out.