How I Uncovered Long Forgotten Meaning in Our Family’s Christmas Traditions

I was 8-years-old when I realized there was no Santa Claus. I’d lost the Snow White watch I’d received for Christmas—the one with the yellow leather band that came with a plastic figurine of my favorite Disney character. Sitting at breakfast some months later, I confessed the watch was missing.

“We paid good money for that watch,” my father said.

His face wore “the look”—the one that made it clear he was disgusted with my carelessness.

“I thought Santa gave me the watch.”

I was confused, and my mother jumped in with a feeble attempt to preserve the myth.

“Well, who do you think sends Santa the money?”

I was crushed and didn’t put out cookies and milk again on Christmas Eve until I had kids of my own.

Our family had a few long-standing holiday rituals. They weren’t particularly lavish or grand. There were no annual outings to the Nutcracker or five matching sets of red, plaid pajamas to be opened and worn on Christmas Eve, although I would have enjoyed both of those traditions.

My dad was first-generation Irish-American, my mom had one of those hardscrabble New England upbringings; they were not extravagant people. My mom decorated more elaborately in her later years than she ever did during my childhood. Our family didn’t even have “real” Christmas stockings.

My husband, John, has a vintage felt stocking made for him by his grandmother and I needle pointed stockings for our kids. I didn’t think anything of it as a child as I happily hung my navy blue, school uniform, knee socks from the mantel, but my mom made up for it years later when she gave me a needlepoint stocking with my name on it to match the ones I’d hand-stitched for my children.

There was no paper-pulling free-for-all in our house.

My father had a very precise ritual for opening presents, a system designed to control the chaos:

One at a time, gifts handed to Santa (Dad) by an elf (child) who fetched them from under the tree, the label read aloud and full attention given to the giftee.

Very orderly and sometimes tedious, with three kids, it took forever.

Those packages were the clothes, nighties, and mittens. I wanted to get back to the good stuff from Santa—like Barbie dolls, ice skates, and record players.

Even with the kids grown up, we roughly adhere to the same format even now, but with a pause for breakfast and mimosas.

I’d convinced myself that our family didn’t have rituals, mostly, I think, because my parents were unreliable picture takers and there’s scant proof we even celebrated Christmas. There are so few photos that it’s hard for me to separate one year from the next and many of my recollections are fuzzy and dreamlike. I recently began recovering from my seasonal amnesia, thanks to a holiday writing workshop, which sparked a flood of memories…

…The way my dad meticulously placed tinsel on the tree (until my mom replaced the shiny silver strands with bows made of fat, red yarn)… the Christmas Eve driving tour of neighborhood light displays… trays of Finnish icebox cookies and raspberry tarts lined up in the kitchen for distribution to friends… the brown faux-leather maxi coat with a leopard fleece lining that my mom secretly zipped up on her Singer from a Simplicity pattern (1970?)… and there was always classical choral music on the stereo.

There were several years in a row when we skied on Christmas Day… another time our neighbors came, and we had an impromptu talent show… And, more often than not, we welcomed what we fondly called “strays” to our dinner table—generally middle-aged, divorced men my dad knew from his 12-step fellowship. Usually, those were last-minute invitations, and my dad would run out to Walgreen’s for a nice box of cologne or chocolates so the poor guy would have a gift to open.

One of my favorite family traditions was born of a joke.

My father, despite being somewhat rigid, a strict disciplinarian and a member of the grammar police, had a wonderful sense of humor. He once received an atrocious gift at an office holiday party. The Avon Side Wheeler was a brown, glass vessel, shaped like a riverboat and filled with “Wild Country” aftershave. It set off a decades-long gag of re-gifting, back and forth, each Christmas, between Dad and his friend Gary. Now they’re both gone, and I sure wish I had that ugly thing. Our son and nephew have a similar prank and unload a fruitcake back and forth, usually left on the porch in the dark of night.

In my childhood, whatever happened within the blur of Christmas was sandwiched between two customary rituals because, even before she became an Episcopal priest, my mother was a firm adherent to the liturgical calendar of the church. She was never one to put up the tree the day after Thanksgiving and take it down December 26 or even New Year’s Day. She—and, therefore, we—observed the season of Advent beginning four Sundays before Christmas. The Advent Wreath was on our kitchen table, and each night we lit the appropriate candles and sang “O Come O Come, Emanuel,” a tradition I have continued.

The tree stayed up until January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the Three Wise Men who followed a star to find the Christ child in the manger. I’ve never known anyone else who did this, but my brothers and I would leave shoes outside on the eve of Epiphany, filled with hay for the Wise Men’s camels. In the morning, there’d be gifts in our shoes. I wonder when that myth was busted! And where the heck did my mom get the hay?

I never did try to pull that camel caper over on our next generation. Instead, we forced them to watch It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas Eve.

We adopted families through the Angel Tree at church; like my mother, we baked and delivered goodies to neighbors and friends; there was music in the house, and I insisted on a picture of the kids in our holiday cards.

By the way, I still haven’t put up my tree and, when I do, I’ll leave it up until January 6.

As for the Santa myth, John and I did perpetuate it, but we didn’t make a huge deal out of it. We never forced the kids to take pictures with Santa and, as far as I know, they weren’t traumatized by the truth.

And speaking of truth, even though my bubble was burst after I lost that Snow White watch, there’s a little part of me that still believes…

Photo Credit: simpleinsomnia Flickr via Compfight cc


Mary Novaria

Mary Novaria is a mother, wife and journalist whose work has been featured in numerous print and online publications including the Washington Post, Redbook, Country Living, Delish, Dr. Oz The Good Life, Good Housekeeping, Chicago Tribune, Feminine Collective, Kansas City Star, Huffington Post, The Good Men Project and Period! She writes about family, friendship and everyday life on her blog, A Work in Progress (www.marynovaria.com). Mary recently completed a “sandwich generation” memoir exploring the trials of raising an angst-ridden teen and, at the same time, caring for a parent with dementia, all the while trying to maintain her sanity, sense of humor and some semblance of grace.

7 thoughts on “How I Uncovered Long Forgotten Meaning in Our Family’s Christmas Traditions

  1. Mary Rowen Reply

    This is lovely, Mary. I love your traditions! In many ways, your family sounds a lot like mine, although I’ve never heard of the hay in the shoes. But the “strays” and the tinsel, and the mom who decorates much more now than then–oh yes. Also, our tree stays up till Jan 6th unless it seems like a fire hazard. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Veronica Marie Lewis-Shaw Reply

    Wonderful traditions, Mary, and some heart-warming memories. Which is really what the holidays are about. Matching Audi coupes in the driveway with big red bows isn’t celebrating the life and resurrection of Christ. It’s the ‘little” things we do with family in honor and memory and celebration of our Savior and in thankfulness for the life we have through Him.

    And okay… it’s a little about the presents. Lol!

    For me, the Santa myth was busted when I was six. That was the year that through the Herculean efforts of my father, I was given the Hello Kitty Christmas that I had fervently wished for the whole year.

    It wasn’t really my parent’s fault the myth was busted. A certain dark-haired girl was eavesdropping in the middle of the night when she should have been sleeping. I couldn’t sleep though. Papa wasn’t home and though she tried not to show it, Mama was very worried too!

    I never did let on that I knew that it was Papa and his “big adventure” that made my Christmas wishes come true that year and not Santa.

    Myths are as important to parents as they are to their children.

    1. Mary NovariaMary Novaria Reply

      Thank you, Veronica, for your thoughtful words and for sharing a bit of your experience. You are so right, celebrations and gifts in our world often seem very far away from the true meaning of Christmas… I hope you have a blessed one!

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