They are some of the most vivid memories of my childhood. We carried piles of chopped wood into the house, stacking it next to the fireplace. My father mashed newspaper and leaned kindling on it, shifting the logs into the flames until the entire room glowed and warmed. Stockings dangled on the mantle. Snow tumbled from the clouds in droves. The pines grew santa beards and moaned under the weight of the ice.
The kitchen bloomed sweet scents. Sugar cookies emerged from the oven, ready to be smeared with frosting. Cider and hot cocoa perched on the stove, ready for refills. Roasted turkey and seasoned potatoes emitted their incense into every corner of every room.
Tables, littered with odds and ends, invited us to create our own ornaments. Our little hands shaped tin foil into metallic candy canes. We painted wooden shapes into colorful messes that led to endeared glances from our parents and grandparents. My brother, cousins, and I barely noticed these glances at the time, seething in sugar rushes, entranced by the holiday spectacle. We recollect those moments now as we glance at our spouses over our own children’s busy little heads, hair messy and vertical with static electricity from stocking hats, chins sticky with frosting and flecked with crumbs.
We tore out of the garage with the family dog and leapt snow drifts like surfers entering ocean surf. Geared in snow pants, parkas, stocking caps, boots, and gloves, it was a miraculous, clumsy adventure rolling snowballs into massive boulders, stacking them into snowmen or snow fort walls, throwing ourselves on the ground and carving angels into the powder. Inevitably, the first snow ball winged through the air and wooshed passed someone’s head. A declaration of war was made and the battle began!
Naps followed. Sweaty boots and soaked gloves, coats, and scarves piled next to heating vents. Melting snow pooled underneath the stack, resembling Frosty’s top hat on the floor of the greenhouse. When our eyelids finally fluttered awake and our mouths gave up drowsy yawns, we dissolved out of sleep into wakefulness to the gentle sound of Pachelbel’s Canon, drifting down the hallway.
“White Christmas” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” flickered on the television, and Bing Crosby’s voice lifted off the album after my grandmother placed the needle. Forever will the sound of his singing kindle the comforting recollection of my grandmother’s giggling and my grandfather, looming large as a giant, at the head of the dinner table.
My family has as much dysfunction as any, but these memories are nestled in a hallowed, inviolate space. The spirit of these holidays that grace our calendar express the idea that a higher power is good, beneficent, beautiful, generous, and most importantly of all, intensely concerned about the well-being of human beings. We take this time to celebrate one another, to cherish our fleeting moments while we bear the breath of life, and to invest in the poorer, the lesser among us in order that they too may share in the blessings that the fortunate experience. In the quiet of my home, when my family is tucked into bed and the winter wind is howling against the walls, I have thought of ways to try to instill similar experiences in my family. As you plan your holiday, maybe these ideas can help you make this year a sacred memory for you and yours.
Family Quirks Can Make Some New Traditions. An elderly relative is a survivor of the Great Depression. Constantly attempting to make every cent count, she generally purchases some very interesting sweaters from the local thrift store for a quarter or fifty cents. These are our gifts. Usually they are two or three sizes too small and nowhere near the ballpark of the latest fashion. But we happily put on our new sweater, respectfully masking any laughter as we try to fit into them. It’s fine by us! We look forward to snapping the photo of our new sweater. Last year, my brother-in-law looked extremely dapper with a large cardinal draped across his chest. My wife slipped on a gold colored sweater with a wreath pasted on the front. I happily pulled my new skin-tight sweater over my head and, mildly embarrassed, listened to everyone comment on every visible contour of my upper body. I sipped my egg nog and acted as if nothing was the matter until my fingers went a bit numb from the elastic tourniquets half-way up my forearms. You don’t forget things like that!
Don’t Forget the Gag Gift! One Thanksgiving, a member of the family brought a particularly unappetizing dish to pass. By the end of the day, the dish, untouched, had congealed into an even more unappetizing entity. Another member of the family who will remain anonymous, gathered a healthy portion of this food substance, and took it home. During the interlude between November and December, this food substance spent some time in the freezer as well as some time on shelf in the garage to “ferment to ripe perfection.” Said family member then placed it in a decorative box, wrapped it, and placed it under the tree. When I had the good fortune of opening this wondrous present, I got to experience this food item all over again. I also discovered why the dog had been so interested in this little package the whole day.
Cook Together. One of the major highlights of any holiday celebration is the meal. That meal takes work. If you have a family member who lavishes in the role of the holiday chef, see if you can volunteer to be their assistant. It’s fun to watch your son or daughter help create a portion of the meal and then applaud his or her efforts during the feast. If, however, the host of your holiday is not a big fan of cooking, try to balance this burden by organizing a theme and assign willing relatives a dish to pass. After all, who says the main course has got to be turkey? Wouldn’t it be fun to have Uncle George grilling ribs or kabobs on the grill, especially if it’s only 30 degrees out?
Incorporate Exercise. With all the feasting that happens on the holiday, it’s important to give your body a break. Instead of engorging yourself into a tryptophan (the amino acid in turkey which causes sleepiness) coma, treat yourself right by including some form of physical exercise in your holiday plans. Whether that means getting out in the snow for a slippery football game or going for a hike (in locales where snow is not an option), get creative and get active. This is also handy for getting your little ones to sleep long and hard, which hopefully means dad and mom get too do the same.
Your Gift Doesn’t Need to Be Expensive, Just Thoughtful. These days there isn’t a lot of money to throw around. It’s a good thing that the best gifts aren’t always the most expensive. The beginning of giving a good gift is knowing what the receiver values. That takes time and effort. That takes getting to know the person who may or may not be all that pleasant or easy to get to know. If you listen closely though, even casual banter can shed light on where a person is at internally. If you pay attention, you might receive the gift of being able to give a gift which is not a mere item, but a blessing.
Do Something Charitable. Teaching your children lessons of gratitude, thankfulness, and humility are more and more difficult in today’s society. The holidays are an excellent time to effort at instilling these values. In a family prayer before your meal or by an act of service, your children can be exposed to adults of character and learn some powerful life lessons. If serving meals to the homeless is too scary for young children, try shoveling an elderly neighbor’s driveway or attending a church service. Take half-time of the football game to pack a gift box for a service-person overseas. There’s really no end to the possibilities when it comes to helping others. As they say: “There’s nothing to it but to do it!”
Hopefully these ideas can help make your holiday one that will live in your children’s hearts and minds as well as yours. Happy Holidays!
Mack Dreyfuss is a freelance writer and writes on a variety of topics while doing his best to enjoy all four seasons. He lives in Wisconsin with his wife and daughter. He has been rumored to occasionally change a diaper one-handed, but his wife states that such a feat has never been witnessed. You can read more of his work at themackdreyfusslounge.com.