In my memory, it always snows on Christmas Eve. I know this is not true, however, for I do recall several Christmases where the ground was soggy with mud, and mist hung in the night air.
Other times, it did snow, like the year I had to pour transmission fluid into my car—which came out like molasses because it was twenty-below zero—and lying in the snow banging on the starter with a hammer to make it work. I would have liked some mud and mist on that day, but on Christmas, you took the weather you were given.
Generally, the Christmases of my childhood blend together, and as such, the ones I will be describing are not in chronological order, but are simply the memories that surface. It’s as if all my Christmases past have been put into a bottle and shaken up to give an overall flavour of Christmas. Still, they do tend to settle out, like layers of Jell-o 1-2-3.
The Christmases when I was an adult, well, they aren’t the same, are they?
As a youngster, Christmas, at my house, went like this:
On the 23rd or 24th, Dad would bring a tree home. I never questioned why we got the tree so late; it was just tradition. But, in retrospect, I suspect it was because he got them cheap, as they were mostly sold out by then.
The tree would be left outside until late on the 24th, when he would bring it inside and stand it up, in a big can of water, in the corner of the living room. Then we would anchor the tree to the walls with big upholstery pins and twine. (If you didn’t grow up in a house where upholstery was an everyday part of life, let me assure you that upholstery pins are more than sturdy enough to pound into drywall and hold up a tree.)
Once the naked tree was upright and adjusted so the best side was facing out, we left it. The tree was not a huge part of our Christmas celebration. The tradition we did have, although normal to me, was truly something special, but I remained unaware of just how unique our experience was, and how fortunate we were, until I was much older.
My grandparents lived in the town of Valatie, the first town in the US to have a Santa Claus club.
Here is an excerpt from a news clip dated 8 December 2017:
“The Santa Claus Club was founded in Valatie in 1946 following the end of WWII. This Club was formed by a small group of veterans who were motivated to give a young girl stricken with leukaemia a special Christmas. Bill Farrell, one of the Club’s founders, dressed up as Santa Claus that year to deliver a present to her from the Club. Little did they know that their act of kindness would create the foundation of a program that would spread to many communities in the US and worldwide.
“The Santa Claus Club continues on to this day thanks to dedicated family members who have preserved this tradition. The program is made possible thanks to donations from people in our community, with gift stockings delivered to kids up to 10 years of age, often reaching 600 children. This Club is the first of its kind in our Nation and it’s something that has never been disputed.
“Children from the area are encouraged to write a letter to Santa and drop it in the special mailbox at the Valatie Post Office. To this day, Santa reads each and every one of these letters. The Club goes door to door in early December and takes a census of children on the route who wish to be visited Christmas Eve, that way they know the approximate age to tailor the gift. Each year on December 23rd, Club members and other Community volunteers gather to prepare everything for Santa. They help organize the gifts and fill the stockings to be given out on Christmas Eve to local children. Santa and his elves have eight routes to take and he is a very busy guy on Christmas Eve.”
But I didn’t know any of this as a child. All I knew was that every Christmas Eve, we would go to our grandparent’s house, and Santa would visit and give us a stocking.
The evening was always filled with good food and lots of anticipation as we watched through the window. The first glimpse we got was of Santa riding through the town in his sleigh. He didn’t stop then, however, that was just for show. We had to wait an indeterminate amount of time after that for him to arrive, chauffeured in a station wagon, to deliver the stockings.
Santa was always jolly and boisterous and often smelled of beer and whiskey. He was always known to my aunts, uncles and grandparents, so the visits were generally convivial, and the stockings were amazing. They were filled with fruit and candy and a gift—and not some cheap thing, but a real nice gift—sometimes one of the best I received that Christmas. And the stockings themselves were amazing. They weren’t the type you’d hang on a fireplace; they were big, stretchy sacks that were fun to crawl into and we kept them for months until we finally wore them out.
This magic, and the tradition, remained, even as we got older and became ineligible for the stocking, because our younger siblings still got one, and we could still, vicariously, experience the thrill.
By the time we got home, we were on a high, and then we had to go to bed, and to sleep, so Santa could visit us. But Christmas Eve is the longest night in the year, and it would seem an age before I fell asleep. I must have done so more quickly than I remember, however, as I never heard my parents decorating the tree or putting out the presents.
Naturally, my mom fed me the usual story about how Santa comes down the chimney and decorates the tree and leaves the presents, but I knew better. The chimney was connected to the kerosene heater beneath the hall, and the pipe leading to it, as well as the opening to the heater itself, was way too small for a man to fit through. And if he could get down it, he would just burn to death, anyway.
So, I knew it was my parents who did all of that, but I also knew, when a parent lies to you, you are supposed to pretend that you believed the lie, so I did. For a while, anyway.
On Christmas morning we would wake up and the tree would be festooned with ornaments (and lots and lots of silver tinsel), with a village under it—complete with houses, a church, a pond made out of a mirror with ice skaters on it, and roads made from coffee grounds featuring road signs and cars and trucks. And, of course, there would be presents, in big piles, all around the living room. (There would be more and more piles as the number of children increased from two to five).
My dad worked shift work at a paper mill, so each Christmas was a little bit different. When he worked 4pm to midnight, we would get up, open our gifts and have breakfast like a normal family. When he worked 8am to 4pm (yeah, he worked on Christmas) we had to get up early (no hardship there) and open all our gifts, and then, after he left for work, we would have a leisurely breakfast. Those were the good years; the worst were when he worked midnight to 8am. On those years, we were allowed to open one gift, then we had to wait for him to come home. Then we would have breakfast, and only then could we open our gifts. The waiting was torture.
Overall, however, it was, as it should be, a magical time, when the day seemed brighter and everything was perfect. (In my memories, that is.) Often, we would return to our grandmother’s house for a big Christmas dinner (either early or late, depending on Dad’s shift) and then play with our new treasures late into the evening.
As we got older, things began to change. We stayed home on Christmas Eve and were allowed to stay up and help with the tree decorating. Even though we knew that our parents had done it, we didn’t know how, and it was a revelation to see how my father constructed the village, stacking the boxes the ornaments came in around the base of the tree to form a hill, then covering it with a layer of cotton to make the snow. Then there was the village planning. Where should the roads go, the church, the houses, the mirror lake? He planned it meticulously, then set everything out, pulling coloured light bulbs through the cotton and fitting them into the cardboard buildings, laying out the roads using a teaspoon and coffee grounds, tearing a hole for the lake and setting out the metal figures. He took great pride in it, and drank many beers while planning it out. And it always looked splendid.
Individual memories of Christmases include:
The year I got a mechanized tank. My dad spent weeks putting it together. It moved forward and back, the turret turned, and it shot plastic shells from the cannon. It was wonderful, for about ten minutes. On its first trip across the living room floor, my brother Marc sat on it hoping to get a ride. Instead, he squashed it flat.
Similarly, in my teen years, I got a remote-control airplane. This was before advances in electronics, so the remote control was attached to the plane by wires. Still, the idea was the same, you taxied, took off and flew around—your distance limited by the wire—and, hopefully, landed. The plane itself was made of stiff plastic, which was made brittle by the cold air when my sister and I took it outside to try it.
My dad was there to show us how it worked. I don’t recall handling it myself, even though it was mine. What I do recall is my sister attempting a takeoff, inadvertently steering it directly at me, and the plane going right between my legs, sheering off both wings.
Those were anomalies, however, and I don’t recall either of those events ruining our Christmas. It was more a matter of, oh well, let’s find something else to play with.
I bet my dad was disappointed, however.
As an adult, Christmases became less vivid. I like to think that my boys hold special memories of those days, but I can’t even recall if we continued the tradition of putting the tree up on Christmas Eve or not. I do recall that I made a unique Christmas ornament that I used to decorate the house with, but not much else.
When I became single again (sounds so much better than, “after I got divorced”) Christmas became a more solemn affair. I never had a tree when I was single (one year, I drew a picture of a tree and hung it on the wall) and the day mostly consisted of visiting my children to give them whatever gifts I could afford that year. (Yeah, feel sorry for me, it really sucked.)
The only memorable thing I recall that remotely concerns Christmas happened during the years I was with SWMNBN (She Who Must Not Be Named).
She had a vaulted ceiling in her living room, so she always got a big tree, a real one, which I put up and decorated in her prescribed manner. This involved putting on an unimaginable number of lights. The strings of lights, joined one after the other, were carefully wrapped around each branch, starting from the tree trunk out. They went from the top to the very bottom. This took a full day.
The second day, we put on the ornaments. It was a gruelling process, often filled with arguments, but when it was over, and the tree was turned on, it was spectacular. The tree glowed from the inside out, like a multi-coloured star. As much as I hated putting it up (and taking it down), I never got tired of looking at it.
I was glad to learn the trick of making a tree look so amazing, but after escaping from her, I have never been tempted to do it myself. It is simply too much work. And, frankly, I don’t have the room to store all those lights.
These days, living in the south of Britain, there is faint hope of snow on Christmas Eve, but I do have a clear memory of one year when it really, truly did happen.
It was 1978. I was living in an apartment above a pizza joint in Nassau, NY. I was to get married on New Year’s Day and my fiancée had just left to return to her parent’s home, leaving me alone on Christmas Eve. But it wasn’t a melancholy time; I was on the cusp of adulthood and looking forward to life and, when I went outside late that evening to wander the silent streets, I found two inches of fresh snow on the ground, and more floating down from the dark sky.
It was, quite literally, a silent night. All was calm, and the little town was bright with snow. It was one of the loveliest Christmases I have ever experienced, and it allows me to say that, yes, it does snow on Christmas Eve.