Ah, Christmas. It’s a time of joy and cheer, lights and festivities, family and friends. It is, as they say, the most wonderful time of the year.
I grew up loving Christmas. My mom always went to great lengths to make the holiday season fun for us kids. Of course, it always seemed like Christmas would never arrive, and the anticipation of it all was almost as much fun as the day itself.
But arrive it did. And it was like magic.
At holiday time, everything imaginable was decorated, both inside and outside the house. All of the normal decor was put away, and in its place went beautiful holiday decorations, from mistletoe to nutcrackers to Santas. The outside was equally impressive, with lights bedazzling the eye, and lovely Christmas wreaths topped with red velvet bows adorning the windows.
The Christmas season was always filled with hustle and bustle. You could almost feel the electricity in the air.
There was always a lot of baking to be done, and though I was never one to be found in the kitchen if I could help it, I always enjoyed helping with the Christmas baking. I think all of us kids did. We enjoyed swiping some cookie dough, or licking the bowl of all the leftover frosting, just a much as we did the finished goodies.
Then there were the Christmas gatherings. My parents’ friends would often have parties, as would some organizations around town. We kids were happy to go along, where we could play with our friends and stay up past our bedtime. We’d get dressed in our holiday best, and bring along something yummy to share with everyone, as a show of gratitude for the hospitality.
My piano teacher, Mrs. Rhinehart, always had the best food at our Christmas piano recitals. My favorite was her holiday punch, a recipe my mom got from her, and something I still have tucked away to this day. While Mrs. Rhinehart is no longer here, I have great memories of her kindness and generosity.
Some years, we went Christmas caroling around town. This was a favorite of mine. It was so much fun, dressing up in our warmest and best clothes, lighting our candles, and walking house-to-house as we sang carols to our neighbors, despite the often frigid temperatures. Our neighbors seemed to appreciate our efforts, with some even joining in the revelry.
Watching holiday movies was always a Christmas tradition in our house. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman” were some of our favorites when we were young, while my mom loved the holiday classics. “It’s a Wonderful Life” had to be her favorite, and became one of ours as well. It was always so heartwarming to see the town of Bedford Falls come together to help George, a man who’d selflessly done so much for others throughout his life, and had asked for nothing in return. Seeing everyone so joyously helping George in his time of need, and then hearing the tinkle of the little bell as Clarence earned his wings, always brought a smile to our faces. It was indeed a wonderful life.
Growing up in West Virginia, we often had snow at Christmastime. Memories of wading through waist-deep snow as I scurried back up the hill near our house, pulling my sled behind me to take another thrilling ride, stand out like they were yesterday. Making the biggest snowman we could, and then searching for sticks and rocks, and perhaps a carrot from the kitchen, to adorn it was a must. Hours went by before we took any notice of being tired or cold, as nothing could eclipse our joy at playing with our siblings and friends in the snow.
When Christmas Eve arrived, we would bake cookies for Santa, placing them on a plate alongside a cup of milk, as Santa was sure to need a snack after all his dashing about. Once our letter to Santa was written, we were allowed to pick out one present to open, and this was almost as much fun for us as Christmas Day itself. This tradition is one I’ve continued with my son to this day, and I think he loves it as much as we did.
Finally, bedtime seemed to come earlier than usual. We didn’t want Santa to pass us by because we weren’t sound asleep.
The anticipation of it all often made sleep elusive. I recall one Christmas, when I was about 6 or 7 years old, tossing and turning in my top bunk, while my brother slept soundly below. As I looked out the window, I noticed a red blinking light off in the distance. I could hardly believe it! Rudolph was so close to our house, and I’d not yet fallen asleep! I tried my best to drift off, but couldn’t resist a couple more peeks through my nearly closed eyes. Santa seemed to be taking a long time at someone’s house, but no matter, I knew he would soon be here. Finally, sleep overtook me.
The next morning, I rushed to tell my family, with the excitement and wonder that only a child can have, about my good fortune in seeing Rudolph. I can still remember that feeling—that certainty of belief, that sense of awe—just as I can remember when it finally started to fade.
It’s hard to find that sort of innocence, pure faith, and wonder again as an adult.
Funnily enough, Christmas Day is somewhat of a blur as I reminisce today. There were presents of course, and lots of good food, and visits to Grammy King’s house, my great-grandmother and the glue that held our family together. And while there are a few special presents that stand out, much like Ralphie’s Red Ryder BB gun in “A Christmas Story,” those aren’t the things that I really remember. It’s the time spent with family and friends that has always made Christmas special.
Playing with my brothers and friends in the snow, spending time with family and friends in the kitchen and at gatherings, spreading a little holiday cheer to neighbors and our small town—these are the things that made those times special.
Chances are, when we look back years from now, neither we nor our children are going to remember the things we receive this Christmas. Things are fleeting. What’s important and popular today probably won’t matter much a few years from now. As Christmas becomes more and more commercialized, we tend to forget these things.
Maybe a return to some of our Christmas traditions, with a focus on spending time with family and friends, helping our next-door neighbor, or doing something nice for our community, would bring a kind of joy to our heart that no object ever could. This is important for us adults to remember, and to instill in our children. Thinking of what we can do for someone else this season may be the best gift we can give—not just to others, but to ourselves as well.
Looking at the world through the eyes of a child, perhaps we can reach the state of purity we once had, and recall, with the deep knowing we each have, why we are here and what really matters. Things don’t bring lasting happiness. How we treat one another and the kindness we show—these are the things that matter.
As I reflect back on Christmases past, I wish for you all kindness and good-cheer—for Christmastime and throughout the year.
Tatiana Denning, D.O., is a family medicine physician who focuses on wellness and prevention. She believes in empowering her patients with the knowledge and skills necessary to maintain and improve their own health.