For some reason, this Christmas season has found me more nostalgic than I think I have ever been in my adult life. Since I normally have a hard time getting back to California for the holidays at all, I feel extremely lucky that this year I was able to make a trip down for Thanksgiving and another one last weekend to celebrate my mom’s birthday with her as well as join in on the family Christmas traditions of decorating my parents’ tree and making a ton of cookies (known in my family as Bakefest).
I have such great memories of holidays as a kid. I truly felt that from Thanksgiving through New Year’s, it truly was the very most wonderful time of the year. There was so much to celebrate.My parents loved my siblings and I so much and did so many wonderful things for us, all the time of course but especially at Christmas. Now I’m in my thirties and I have more beautiful memories than I could ever collect into a blog post, but I thought I would share a few that I was thinking about during my visit last weekend.
My mom’s birthday is exactly a week before Christmas, and it was very important to us that her day be special and were horrified at the mere thought of anyone lumping her birthday in with Christmas. We always picked out birthday gifts that were wrapped in birthday, NOT Christmas, wrapping paper. I remember when we were little, my mom would unwrap her presents, and then my little sister would be so excited that she would go to the Christmas tree to start giving Mom more gifts. “No, no, Melissa, the rest are for Christmas,” Dad would remind her gently, and then we would go into the dining room for birthday cake. One year, I picked out a tiny glass horse with a pink mane, convinced it was the most wonderful thing Mom would have ever received. Of course, Melissa may have beat me out with the Pooch Patrol poodle she gifted Mom that birthday (the link is for the 1990 commercial, which I am very grateful to the Internet for making available).
When I was growing up, we would typically decorate the Christmas tree after dinner on Thanksgiving. This year though, my parents held out so that I could be there to help. As we put the ornaments on the tree, I remembered doing it as a little girl. My parents would sit on the couch, each with a box of ornaments on their laps. One by one, they would lift out the ornaments and hand them to my siblings and I, warning us to be very careful. Then we would carry them to the tree and search for just the right spot to hang them. When they got down to the last few boxes, they would hang some near the top of the tree, because we were small and couldn’t really reach all that high (I think our tree was probably beautifully decorated from the kneecap down and naked at the top!). Most of the ornaments my parents have are older than I am, and as I selected each one I admired it just as I did as a child.
The fully decorated tree
If I wasn’t already feeling sufficiently nostalgic after birthday celebrations and tree decorating, Bakefest did me in. Mom dearly loves to bake and has passed down that love to my brother, sister, and I. Our kitchen when I was little had a great full-length counter that divided it from the dining room. My siblings and I would pull up chairs from the dining table and kneel on them (or, when we were really small, stand on them) and “help” Mom make cookies. In other words, we watched and then enthusiastically licked cookie dough off the spatula and the beaters off the mixer. Once the cookies were baked, she would spread them out in front of us and let us decorate them with frosting and sprinkles. Somewhere in an album there is a photo of a toddler-aged me, butter knife in hand, a look of intense concentration on my face as I spread icing onto a cookie. This year, Melissa and I rolled out and cut out the cookies, using the same cookie cutters Mom helped us place in the dough when we were little: Santas, snowmen, holly, a reindeer we all loved but whose antlers were practically impossible to cut out intact. And the gingerbread….Mom would always make gingerbread cookies for our classes, and made sure that all the boys got boy cookies and all the girls got girl cookies. As an adult I have no idea how she had the patience, as I most certainly do not (some of my gingerbread people didn’t make it onto the cooling racks without suffering the loss of an arm, a leg, or at times a head, leaving me no choice but to put a swift end to their suffering by stuffing them into my mouth). The only thing missing from this year’s Bakefest was Dad’s fudge, which he used to make every year in his special candy pot and smooth into glass Pyrex dishes. This year I think we were all frightfully close to lapsing into sugar comas, so he decided to wait.
A sampling of the cookies we made. One reindeer made it.
My parents always made the holidays so special and fun for us. Of course there are traditions we just couldn’t get around to in the three days I was there, but I have such great memories of things we would do together. My dad and I loved sneaking off together for a day of Christmas shopping, and our venue of choice when I was a teenager was the Block in Orange (it’s called the Outlets at Orange now). We would grab lunch and then make our way through the mall, enjoying the crisp-but-not-cold Orange County weather while we shopped. One of the things we liked best was that there was a Hilo Hattie store and we could buy Hawaiian-scented lotions and Hawaiian coffee. And one year, he took me to the Dewey Weber surf store (I think it’s in San Clemente?). I loved it. It was a small shop, jam-packed with surfboards and surf wear, and he got me a black Dewey Weber hoodie that I still have and wear, despite it’s being rather beat up now.
I very fondly remember Christmas mornings. When I was little, we were up before the sun, waking Mom and Dad and urging them to come to the living room because “Santa came!”. Santa gifts in our house weren’t wrapped, they were put out next to the tree on Christmas Eve. Presents from family were wrapped in coded paper. Before we kids were old enough to read, Mom would choose a wrapping paper for each kid and all of our gifts would be in that particular paper. To dissuade us from poking and pinching the gifts to figure out what we were getting, she didn’t reveal which wrapping paper was ours until Christmas morning, when we found a swatch of it in the beautiful stockings she made for us when we were very small. Once we got older and could read, she changed the system slightly and assigned us each a code name (for example, one kid’s presents would be labeled ‘Elf’, another would be ‘Gingerbread’, etc). On Christmas morning, our code name would be on a little swatch of paper in our stockings. Even after we were teenagers and the urge to feel up the gifts had subsided, we were adamant that she continue with the tradition.
The year I was ten and catching on to the nonexistence of Santa Claus, I begged Santa for a bike, sure that my parents would never get me one (we didn’t really live in a place where kids could ride bikes, as we had no sidewalks or parks nearby). We lived in the desert, so my parents got us dirt bikes and stashed them at a neighbor’s house. On Christmas Eve, as was tradition, my mom made a ton of tacos and enchiladas for dinner, and then we piled into the car to drive through the neighborhood and look at Christmas lights. I’ve always loved that. I remember being bundled into my cozy winter coat, snuggled into the backseat staring out the window while Christmas music played on the stereo. We would “ooh” and “aah” at the cool light displays. I don’t know if Dad scoped out houses beforehand or how he pulled it off, but he always knew where to go to see the best lights. On the particular Christmas Eve when I was ten, the neighbors waited until we left, then sneaked our bikes into our house and set them up in the living room. When we got home, Santa had been there, and we were totally floored!
The Christmas I was twelve, we were living briefly in San Diego. I was very impressed with my own self-perceived maturity, and so even though I was just as excited as ever for Christmas morning, I pretended that I was far too grown up to lose sleep on Christmas Eve. That year, my brother and sister must have been overcompensating for my aloofness, because they got everyone up around, oh, about 2:30am. I feigned irritation at them, but secretly I was absolutely fine with getting up and beginning the Christmas morning festivities. That was also the Christmas that Real Talking Bubba came to live with us on Christmas Eve. I don’t remember who he was a gift for, but I do remember sitting in the living room of our rental house, all five of us laughing so hysterically that we were crying as we played with that bear.
While we lived in San Diego, we got our boxer puppy, Shotsie. Once we had Shotsie, we always got her a new doggie toy on Christmas. Her present would be wrapped and placed under the tree, just like all the rest, and once we finished opening presents she knew it was her turn. She would wag her little stump of a tail with excitement as we helped her pull the paper off her gift to reveal her new toy, which she would then spend the day chewing.
I’m not a religious person at all, and my fondness for the holiday season has nothing whatsoever to do with faith or Christianity. I love this time of year because it was so special in my household when I was growing up and because I want to keep my family’s traditions alive. At home in Washington, I bake cookies, and I decorate a Christmas tree every year. I don’t have a fireplace but my childhood stocking is hung in my living room all the same. The special ornament my parents bought me for my first Christmas is hanging on my tree. And when I get the chance, I fly home to California and my family and I pick up right where we left off.