Some of the best memories I have from my childhood are from the Christmas season.
I went to a Lutheran school through 8th grade and each year, the school put on a Christmas program. Each class spent hours rehearsing songs and a verse to recite. Finally, the big night arrived. It was exciting to see my classmates arrive in our classroom, outside the context of class, all dressed up in their Christmas outfits and dresses. We marched into the packed gym single file and each sat in the chair we had been assigned several weeks earlier. For the first time, we saw the whole program come together with lights, acting and music — and we each did our part to make it magical.
On Christmas Eve, my parents, three brothers and I ate a special dinner, the highlight of which was almost always meat fondue. We each had our two color-coded skewers and we drank “cold duck” (sparkling juice) in the wine glasses with the gold rims and berry garland that we had accumulated with copious trips to Arby’s.
After dinner, we opened presents in the living room by the Christmas tree decorated with white lights and handmade, memory-filled ornaments. A model train encircled the bottom of the tree, whirring quietly past the dimly lit ceramic houses of Dickens Village. I don’t remember the gifts, or even what I wanted, but I remember being together.
After presents, we went to the 10 o’clock candlelight service at church. The snow and cold at such a late hour made the trek brutal, but none of us ever questioned it — because it was just what we did. The hall of the Sunday school rooms was lined with winter jackets, their arms stuffed with hats and mittens, and small puddles of melting snow as the women and kids exchanged snow boots for dress shoes, and the men removed their rubbers.
Most years, at least a few of us couldn’t help dozing off during the service because of the late hour and comforting atmosphere, but once they started lighting our individual candles, row by row, in anticipation of the last song “O Holy Night”, we shrugged off our sleepiness and sat up straight. We lifted our voices with the words of the classic hymn as the glow of hundreds of candles flickered on the red brick walls and stained glass windows.
Christmas Day, we often got together with my mom’s brother and his family who lived in our town. Sometimes we went to a movie, sometimes we just hung out with us kids playing.
After that, we drove up to my grandparents’ house in Ada, Minnesota. We always arrived at night but we still stumbled out of our conversion van half-awake to sit at the kitchen table for cookies. Grandma Dee always had cookies — Captain Crunch cereal and marshmallows covered in almond bark and peanut butter, and “macaroons” (the no-bake cookies made with cocoa) were our favorites. And in the morning, oh man, we ate slices of homemade cinnamon bread and strawberry jam. There was nothing else quite like it.
Being the only girl, I was spoiled with my own bedroom while my brothers had to fight over a single couch and the floor of the living room. My room had a single twin bed and a fiber-optic flower that slowly faded from one color to another, working its way through the rainbow.
Many years, for the Christmas celebration with my dad’s parents, I put together a short Christmas program that included readings from the gospel of Luke and a handful of my favorite Christmas hymns. Together, we focused on the true meaning of Christmas before opening presents.
The rest of our stay at Grandma Dee and Grandpa Norman’s house was spent playing video games, Rook and 3-13, pool tournaments on the table they had in their basement (until they replaced it with a ping-pong table after the flood), and hide and seek with a wheeple. My grandma also had a box of old clip-on earrings that I loved to play with.
At some point, we’d head over to my mom’s parents’ house in Hendrum to spend the day with them. My cousins from Rochester were often there and the minute we arrived, we’d race out of the van and bolt for “The Fort,” a small closet located in the wall on the second flight of stairs from the main level to upstairs. You could lock it from the inside, so whoever got there first could control who entered, and who didn’t. And you could only fit about 3 of us kids in there at a time so it was an elite group.
Those of us not in The Fort amused ourselves by playing card games and spying on the people down on the main level through a hole in the upstairs bedroom floor, meant for allowing heat to travel from there up into the room.
I don’t remember opening gifts there. That’s not to say we didn’t — I’m sure some gifts were exchanged. But it was never the focus — more of an afterthought. What mattered was being together.
All of my grandparents are gone now, and have been for several years. And with me and my brothers having spouses and our own children, Christmas looks quite a bit different than it used to. But we’re still making memories together, and I hope that my girls will look back one day and have just as many wonderful memories of Christmastime as I do.