Our house was loaded to the bursting with Christmas tradition. First and foremost, Christmas officially began for us kids in September, when the Sears and Ward's Christmas catalogs were dropped on our doorstep. When we paged through them; we could see three months into our future.
No matter how young we were, after getting a few Christmases under our belts, we were well aware of the toys that we were likely to get, and which toys we were not likely to get, no matter how well we behaved. These were the high-priced and semi-dangerous (but very interesting) toys that sometimes a favorite relative might give us.
Of course, there were still a few holidays to celebrate, like Halloween and Thanksgiving, but even while we were scaring people and giving thanks for that big old turkey, the shining glow of Christmas was beginning to dazzle our young eyes. In a month, the big day would arrive.
I always marvelled at families who bought their Christmas trees right after Thanksgiving. We never bought ours before Dec. 10. OK, I was a little jealous, but that disappeared right after Christmas Day, when some of those early-bought trees hit the curbs before New Year's. Our tree never did, not this early. Ours would last at least until Jan. 6, or even later than that. The vacuum cleaner would pick up dried-out tree needles for months afterward.
The tradition of buying the tree usually happened right after supper, when our father announced he was going out to do the deed. We all went out to choose the perfect tree, and wandered within rows of evergreen- and pine-scented heaven. We were in no hurry to leave. Once we found the tree, it was either tied on top of the car or stuffed in the car trunk, with a red cloth dangling from it to warn that it was sticking out.
Once the tree was safely home, my father chopped a chunk off the tree trunk. Next we dragged the tree inside and positioned it in the tree stand, which we quickly filled with water. It was then that we usually discovered that the tree had a flat side.
We always set that facing the wall, where no one would notice. I don't think we ever found a perfect tree that looked as good in our living room as it did on the tree lot. The fact that we never got a perfect tree was also part of our Christmastime tradition.
Sometimes we had to slice off a piece of the tree top, too, but we didn't just throw that out. We put it in a vase full of water, and decorated it so that it looked like a tiny tree all by itself.
Then came decorating the tree. The same old comfortably familiar cardboard boxes, ink-stamped with the names of ancient food products, came down from the attic, year after year. With so many kids in the family (a maximum of seven), the tree was decorated in record time.
We put a lot of homemade stuff on our Christmas tree, including the traditional popcorn chains that we would eat parts of until it became too stale. It always looked like a flock of hungry robins had attacked the tree. Homemade and home-glued red and green construction paper chains graced the branches, too. Even a child could make them?"and did.
While we revised our toy lists, we also knew that we'd have to buy presents our for family and friends. The younger you were, the cheaper the present you could get away with giving. You could even make a present for your mom or dad, and they would save it forever. It might even end up as an ornament on the Christmas tree, year after year. My little brother Paul made a handprint in plaster, and that hung on branches for years. It may still exist.
There was no way we could forget that Christmas was coming, not with commercials for toys always appearing on television, or with Christmas specials revving up our hopes and dreams. In the 1960s, stop-motion animated programs like "The Year Without A Santa Claus," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" and "Frosty the Snowman" became the traditional things to watch. After a few years passed, we could quote the characters and annoy the grownups. But after all, Christmas was coming, so we didn't annoy them too much!
It was sheer agony for us kids to have to wait for Christmas, and to know that even while we were enduring day after day of boring school classes, that this one most magical day was getting closer and closer. On the last day of school, we would get to watch a fun movie, followed by a vanilla ice cream cup. We did little actual school work, which suited us fine.
Christmas Eve day found our emotions strained to the breaking point. The day was unnatural, and we floated about the house in a kind of daze, feeling the time passing slowly, too slowly. It was a good feeling, though, and we truly felt like all was well with the world. Presents were all bought and wrapped. Some were already under the tree, encouraging shaking, thumping and much guessing as to their contents.
Up we went to bed that night, knowing that the next day would be wonderful, but that some of the fun would be over. It was then that we learned that anticipating getting presents was sometimes more fun than finally getting them.
Christmas Day was full of gifts, good will, good food and good friends. And you know, it still is, really, isn't it? Merry Christmas!