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December 16, 2011

The Christmas of ’51

by Anne Paddock

On the way home from school a few nights ago, my daughter was admiring all the bright multi-colored holiday lights on the street poles and houses remarking how festive the area looks. When we returned to our dark home, my daughter said “Mom, we are a family with no holiday spirit” as we had nary a decoration in sight.

It’s not that we don’t celebrate Christmas (we do) or that we shun the festivities (we don’t). The truth is that we have evolved and take a minimalist approach to the holidays. Real Christmas trees were rare in Europe as cutting down a live tree was deemed wasteful. Christmas lights were rarely seen on houses because using lights for anything other than seeing was considered a waste of electricity so we fell into a cycle of using an artificial tree with a short string of sparkling lights.

But then we came back to the US where everything is lit up, living rooms smell of freshly cut pine, and malls are packed with shoppers.  My daughter thinks we are the Scrooge family because we have not eagerly jumped back into the American way of celebrating the holidays in a big way.  I realized we’ve been out of it too long and we need to create a more festive home for our daughter but I also want her to understand that it’s not all about the lights, the tree and the presents.

I told my daughter about the first Christmas I had with her father and his family.  A few weeks before the holidays, I told my husband that we needed to go buy a Christmas tree to which he replied: “you mean the kind with needles that fall on the floor?” Bingo, that’s the one. He reluctantly went to Home Depot and we found a tree but almost got divorced (not really) in the process between picking out the “right” tree and adjusting the base in the stand, as we each had our own definition of straight.

One great aspect of living in Europe for eight years is that we never had the annual Christmas tree fight and neither of us missed it. This year we figured out a solution:  he goes and gets the tree, sets it up, and then we all decorate it. Why we didn’t figure this solution out 21 years ago is chalked up to youth.

When I was a child, we all went to church on Christmas Eve and then came home to open one present. After dinner we would watch “The Charlie Brown Christmas” or “Rudolph” and afterwards be put to bed. Whoever woke up first (usually around 5:00 am) would wake up the other five kids and everyone would barrel down the steps, and run into the living room where eight piles of presents were spaciously laid out (all presents had to be segregated lest someone perceived being shortchanged although being the only girl out of six children had its advantages on Christmas:  no one wanted my presents). We would tear off the paper of each and every present and it was all over by 5:10 am.

That first Christmas with my husband’s family was an eye-opening experience and a lesson is patience for me. After attending a 10:30 am service that lasted 90 minutes (The Catholics would never tolerate a 90 minute service – there would have been mutiny as the unspoken rule about mass is that it never exceeds 45 minutes), we all came back home to eat and open presents.  My new mother-in-law made her homemade cinnamon rolls and we put the turkey in the oven. Then the present opening began. After each member of my husband’s family opened a present, he or she would tell a story – usually a very long one and although entertaining, I couldn’t believe a family could spend all day opening presents this way.  We didn’t finish until 9:00 pm that night because we stopped to snack, eat a turkey dinner and have coffee and dessert in between the presents and the stories.

I learned that my in-laws remember the Christmas of 1951 as a very special Christmas.  My father-in-law was teaching at Penn State while my mother-in-law was taking care of her two young children: a four-year old (my husband) and a 1-year old (my sister-in-law).  A few weeks before Christmas, the bank made a mistake and put a deposit in their account but by the time the mistake was caught, part of the money was already spent and my in-laws had to pay the money back which meant there wouldn’t be much money for Christmas. They decided to forgo the Christmas tree and spend what little money they had on presents for their young children.

A couple of days before Christmas, my then 4-year old husband was playing outside. Up the street and at the curb in front of a fraternity house was a Christmas tree that had been thrown away when the residents left for the holidays.  He dragged the tree home because he knew his parents couldn’t afford to buy a tree that year. Taken aback by his resourcefulness, his parents put that half dead tree up in their family room and it was perfect in their eyes. The only thing missing was a decoration on the top.

My in-laws had not bought a present for each other because money was scarce so they went downtown and bought an angel to top their tree and that was their present to each other the Christmas of ’51. They had 56 more Christmas Days together and every year, that same angel was on the top of their tree to remind them of that special Christmas when all they really had was each other and that was enough.

Looking back, I learned something very important that night. The celebration wasn’t about the tree, lights or presents; Christmas was about being together, telling stories and laughing – something his family was very good at even when they had their differences. My father-in-law lifted his wine glass that night and his voice cracked as he gave thanks for all of us being together to share the day;  and, that is what I tell my daughter Christmas is really all about.  We will have a live tree this year – the kind with needles that fall on the floor – and some lights and we’ll spend all day Christmas together opening presents and telling stories.

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