When you were growing up, what grabbed you most about the holidays? What memories have you clung on to after all these years?
I’m going out on a snow-covered limb to guess that it wasn’t crystal napkin rings on your grandmother’s table or $100 bills pressed against your palm by your great uncle as he whispered, “This is just between us.” In fact, I’ll crawl even further out on my limb — all the way to where it bows and creaks — to guess that neither of those things were part of your holidays at all. Here are some things I remember:
The giant coffee urn my mother and her sisters swapped amongst themselves as they rotated holiday duties. My mother might host Thanksgiving one year and would need the urn, then my Aunt Ruth would host Christmas and then she’d need the urn. We all stayed home on New Year’s Eve. Easter would hop along, and my Aunt Ki would need the urn, and then Memorial Day when the sisters would commiserate as to whether anybody wanted coffee anyway, as the forecast called for temperatures in the 80s.
I remember the artificial Christmas tree my parents bought — my brother was allergic to real firs — and the color-coated tips on the ends of the branches that corresponded with holes drilled into the trunk. If you inserted the branches correctly, you ended up with a perfectly shaped tree. My brother, who was also partly colorblind, was asked to sit out of the assembly process after the first year.
Our house was very simple, a little run-down even, but with the rugs vacuumed, the furniture dusted, the leaf slipped into the dining table and the holiday table cloth smoothed over it, I felt as if I lived inside a gingerbread house. There were the sour cream cookies my mother baked only for Christmas, and the year when my favorite gift was a set of colorful, plastic handbells. There was the following year when my brothers, who were much older than I, slipped out of sight and rang those bells so I could know Santa Claus had really come, and that I had missed catching him by mere seconds.
Then, something horrible happened. I grew up, and I felt lacking if my holiday spread wouldn’t inspire Norman Rockwell, or if my kids weren’t dazzled by every present under the tree — presents much more expensive than plastic handbells. Those were holidays when I didn’t have the energy to bake my mother’s sour cream cookies because I was too exhausted from trying to replicate some edible, gold concoction I’d seen in a magazine. But now, just in time for my kids to be well-grown, I’ve figured it out. The things that were important to me before should be important to me now: simplicity, family, imagination, belief and bells.
This year I will strive to keep it simple, even a little homely and humble, because that is where the heart of all winter holidays lies — for me and my child within, anyway.