Christmas Traditions

by Henry Swain

Family Christmas traditions grow from the inheritances of childhood memories. Marriage often requires the blending of Christmas practices from two families.

For example, some families open all gifts on Christmas Eve; in others, to still the impatience and excitement of small children, the opening of one gift is allowed at that time. Does your family practice allow an opening of one present before breakfast on Christmas morning or do the impatient children win out over hunger, demanding all gifts be opened first? Do you get a full night’s sleep on the night before Christmas? Not if you have small children. It is probably the only morning of the year when small children awaken early—usually much too early for the parents.

Is it your family’s tradition to have Christmas stockings filled and hanging from the mantle? What do you do if there is no mantle and no chimney for Santa to make his descent? Are you able to keep a list of the gifts received and from whom? Does a nametag get lost among the papers and you struggle to remember who gave you the gift? It is a time for forgiveness, and most don’t mind if you have to ask about at least one gift, “Did you give this to me?”

Have you ever witnessed small children, after all the toys are opened and tried, later to be found playing with more enjoyment with the boxes in which they came? I think of them as boxes of creative imagination, perhaps the greatest gift of all. My family tradition was to hunt for the biggest stocking we could find to hang on the mantle. In marriage, I discovered my mother-in-law made a very large stocking for each of her children from pieces of colorful cloth in “crazy quilt” style. She also carried on that tradition for each of her grandchildren as they were born.

In my childhood years in the Great Depression, getting an orange for Christmas was special. Our local stores had citrus fruit only at Christmas time. Apples were always plentiful, and therefore nothing special, yet appreciated.

Do you remember having certain Christmas tree ornaments that were your favorites? Everyone in our family had one in particular as a favorite, and was allowed to place it on the tree in honor of the preference. My wife still treasures an ornament of a yellow canary in a glass cage.

My first memories of Christmas tree lights were candles. There were candleholders that held slender five-inch candles, which were clipped to the branches. Although we were careful with them, there would almost always be a story in the papers about some fires from the candles that caused tragedy instead of joyful celebration.

The presents my brother and I received were often tractors and construction equipment toys. These were never put to their best use until spring planting time. We did a lot of road building at the edge of the garden, even constructing bridges out of mud forms. When dry, they were surprisingly strong.

The noises we made to simulate the motors of the construction machinery were hard on the throat, but did make the machinery seem much more powerful. I still clear my throat a lot. I wonder if it some kind of carryover? I wonder too, if that early play had anything to do with my ending up in construction in my adult years?

My parents and most of their friends had a pretty dicey time managing the scarcities and uncertainties of the Great Depression. Since most in our community were in the same circumstances, there was little sense of class distinction. The kids of the Judge, the prison guard, the painter, the school superintendent, the banker, the handyman, all flowed in and out of the parents’ houses like the tide among the rocks at the beach. Our parents did a good job at disguising their concerns from their children.

When I talk with others of my generation who grew up through those difficult financial times, we usually agree that we thrived despite the hardships. We seem to appreciate the little things, the simple things more than those whose Christmas times have been more prosperous.

For better or worse, we are all conditioned for life by the times through which we lived in our formative years. I am grateful for those sparse yet plentiful years of my childhood. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotations of scripture. “It was a time when those who had much did not have too much, and those who had little had enough.” Happy Christmas.