As I write this, it is Christmas Eve, although the sunshine and outdoor temperature belie the date on the calendar. We have done our shopping without having to wear a coat, and we haven’t had many fires in the fireplace because it has been too warm. But it is Christmas nevertheless.
We often talk about Christmas by referring to our traditions, the things we do every year at this time, the things that make Christmas “Christmas” for each of us. But things change, and so do our traditions, which often makes Christmas a difficult time of year, especially for those of us who do not embrace change easily.
For instance, I usually begin to feel “Christmas” during the Christmas Eve church service. Every year, toward the end, as we sing “Silent Night” by candlelight, I remember when my great-uncle taught me all the words to the song and I tear up so that I cannot really sing. My great-uncle’s name was Alva Edwin, and perhaps because of that, most people called him “Son.” My sister and I called him “Unky,” and I swear I don’t remember his darkening the door of any church at Christmastime or on any other day. But he must have attended; my great-grandmother would have had a conniption had he not, and after all, he knew all the words to “Silent Night.”
So singing that particular Christmas carol starts me on the road to “way back when.” I sing without looking at the hymnal, and so far, my memory hasn’t failed me; as the words come out, I remember Unky’s patience as I learned each verse by rote.
After singing “Silent Night,” we extinguish our candles and sing the final Christmas carol: “Joy to the World.” That song transports me to a few years after Unky’s lesson, when my mother made Stőllen for our friends and played Mario Lanza’s Christmas album endlessly on our cabinet stereo. I learned all the verses to all the Christmas carols from Mario Lanza, a tenor who followed in the footsteps of the great Caruso. My favorite song on the Christmas album was “Joy to the World,” and I can still sing that one, too, without looking at the music.
After the service, our tradition takes us home. This part of Christmas has changed over the years, but it has usually included delivering goodies that, like my mother, I make for our friends. I tried making Stőllen once, but it was a disaster, so I stick to poppy seed bread and deviled pecans. Occasionally, I make marshmallows or orange marmalade, but the poppy seed bread doesn’t change.
When Emily was small, our tradition required that we prepare for Santa’s visit. Emily laid out cookies and milk for Santa and carrots for the reindeer. She went to sleep, and Max and I listened to Christmas carols – not Mario Lanza, but Mannheim Steamroller and The Carpenters. After Emily was grown up, Santa didn’t come anymore, and we added Diana Krall and Chris Botti to the Christmas music playlist. These days, we usually pay a late-night visit to our good friends the Schroeders, and then it’s time for bed.
Christmas morning comes too early, of course, but we always ignore the alarm and grab a few extra minutes of sleep. But there’s no rest for the weary; I get up and make breakfast. Over the years, we have opened our gifts, sitting around the fire, eating curried fruit and a breakfast casserole.
But things do not stay the same; this year and last, we have adjusted because of Emily’s work schedule. As we did last year, we will forego the Christmas breakfast around the fire to head to meet Emily in Arkansas, where we will enjoy a sumptuous repast at I Hop or Applebee’s.
But it will be Christmas because we will all be together.
After all, are traditions Christmas? Not really. This is Christmas: “And she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn… [U]nto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”
Deborah Mitchell is a a local attorney and a Municipal Court Judge.