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What Makes Christmas, Christmas?

December 25, 2009

Christmas, children, is not a date.  It is a state of mind.  ~Mary Ellen Chase 

With all due respect to Ms. Chase, of course Christmas is a date.  Because whether or not you’re a Christian, you know that December 25 marks the celebration of Christ’s birth.  Shoot, even if you were raised by a pack of wolves in the wilds of Montana you’d figure it out pretty quick once you got into the swing of modern society and bought your first calendar.  It’s right there in black and white on the square marked December 25:  “Christmas.”     

That being said, I do understand and appreciate her point.  Even though I’m married now with my own children and long (loooooooong) out of my parent’s house, every December I think wistfully of my childhood Christmases.  Some things I can replicate, such as the traditional Christmas breakfast (pigs in blankets), Handel’s Messiah blaring on the stereo, and roast beast and Yorkshire Pudding for dinner.  

Copious amounts of blood, sweat and tears went into each year's photo

It’s the things I can’t replicate anymore that have me longing for the past:  my sisters and I jostling for the best spot in front of the fireplace in preparation of our annual Christmas picture (we always took perverse pleasure in witnessing our father’s tenuous grasp on patience wear away shred by shred as one of the four of us invariably ruined each shot – we normally went through at least two rolls of film before mom and dad gave up); sitting on the living room floor and gazing at the tree with our big dog Alex’s head plopped solidly in my lap; my sisters and I bustling around in the kitchen under dad’s orders (someone had to wrap all of those lovely little piggies up in their warm doughy blankets); helping mom unpack and set out box after endless box of Christmas decorations; and bundling up to carefully choose the perfect tree with dad and then trimming it as a family as Christmas music played in the background. 

I didn’t realize how much the celebration of Christmas was wrapped up in the feeling of Christmas until I was twenty.  My best friend and I took a year off of college to work in London and travel around Europe.  We left home in October, and spent both Thanksgiving and Christmas in London, away from family, away from everything familiar and comforting.  Strangely, I never felt homesick.  Being away from home for Christmas for the first time didn’t faze me – because it just wasn’t Christmas being away from home.  The experience of Christmas was so dependent upon my surroundings, my family, my home, that it didn’t feel like Christmas to me, despite all of the lights and decorations.  

Of course as my sisters and I got older, some of the beloved traditions changed anyway.  There was less jostling at the fireplace for the annual picture as we moved out, one by one.  After I left, my dad usually bought the tree by himself.  When he discovered that Chubby and Tubby sold trees for $9.99 (definitely a case of getting what you paid for) he out-Charlie Browned-himself each year with a tree more stunted and spindly than the last, much to mother’s irritation. 

I realize that not everyone has fond memories of Christmas, or of home and family, for that matter.  I am very aware that I was truly fortunate to be blessed with parents and a family life that I remember fondly.  And I think the best way to honor the idyllic Christmases of my childhood is to provide my own children with reason to someday look back on their own Christmases past…wistfully, longingly, with great affection…and a pig or two under their belt.  

Our hearts grow tender with childhood memories and love of kindred, and we are better throughout the year for having, in spirit, become a child again at Christmas-time ~Laura Ingalls Wilder

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