No matter what’s going on in my world, it seems like the moment the calendar turns to December 24th, I become a child again. For as long as I can remember, this has been the case.
There’s something magical that seems to happen for me on Christmas Eve. Memories of Christmases gone by flood my memory, the sounds, the smells, the sights, they all come rushing back into my head. I can hear a song, see a picture, smell a smell, and I’m automatically transported back to my kitchen growing up.
I remember the records my mom would play as she baked and baked her Christmas cookies in the kitchen. She never had the greatest singing voice and she knew it, but there were certain songs that just inspired her to sing like no one was listening. When I hear those songs today, I can almost hear her behind me, singing along.
I think back to the presents that I gave my parents growing up and I can only now fully appreciate just how gracious they were. Clay creations made in school art class. Hamburger patty makers purchased at the local thrift store. Ties for my dad to add to his eternal collection, and despite what they may have thought when they unwrapped those presents, the outward expression that they conveyed to me was that they loved it, regardless of whether or not they were ever going to use it or not.
On Christmas Eve, once we were home from church, my mom would make mulled apple cider on the stove. She would stop by Dunkin’ Donuts on the way home from church because that was a Christmas Eve staple for us, munchkins and cider. As my brother and I got older, we either invited others into our little tradition, or we abandoned it to go be part of other traditions.
As I lay in my bed waiting for the time to be right, I could hear my mom and dad bustling around, wrapping presents, talking as they wrapped, and then they would bring all the presents under the tree. I’m not sure just how much sleep I would get when I was a kid on Christmas Eve. Once everyone else was asleep, I would sneak out of my room quietly and go see what wonders were waiting for me underneath the tree.
In our large upstairs living room, we had one of the smallest trees ever. I’m not sure just how my parents came up with their tradition, but this little tree, while not quite as bad as Charlie Brown’s, was a wonder to behold. We never had a live tree in our house, I had too many allergies and Mom never wanted to think about having to clean one up, but here in this large room with cathedral ceilings was a three foot tree that sat atop my mom’s cedar chest. While others who came into our house may have looked at it quizzically, it was what I knew, what I had grown up with and it only seemed normal and like home to me.
Once I arrived to see what was waiting under the tree, I would begin to organize the presents according to recipient. I wanted to make sure that we were poised for maximum efficiency once the morning came. There would be no need for sorting and stopping once we got going, I made sure of that. I wanted to make sure that nothing was missed and that I would be able to tear into those presents without delay.
When I was satisfied that everything was well organized, I would return to my room. I didn’t really try to listen for Santa, I never really believed in him. In fact, when I was four years old, I told everyone in my pre-school class that he didn’t exist. I don’t think the teachers were very happy with me. Four years old and I had already begun my journey of being a contrarian, funny how that works.
Even now, when I stop to think about Christmas Eve, a smile spreads across my face. Mom and Dad are gone and there is still an ache in my insides because of that, but to know all of those Christmas Eves that we shared together just warms my heart.
My family has started our own Christmas Eve traditions. I think they may be a hybrid of a Griswold Christmas Eve and Ralphie’s Christmas Eve from “A Christmas Story,” at least, I’d like to think so. Thankfully, my wife and I don’t subject our kids to pink bunny suits but it has become a Christmas Eve tradition for the kids to all open a new pair of pajamas. No mulled cider and munchkins, just Chinese food after we get home from church.
Today is Christmas Eve, and the moment that I woke up, I felt the excitement building in me. The excitement that I once had to open all of my presents under the tree has now been replaced with an excitement to see my own kids open their presents. I’ll go through this day with that same excitement, anticipating what the next 24 hours will bring. While we’ll see most of our family next week, we will get to spend Christmas Day as I spent many Christmases growing up, driving to my aunt and uncle’s house and seeing some of my cousins.
Things are different, but I don’t think the magic and wonder that I once felt towards Christmas Eve has been diminished. While I can’t wait for our Christmas Eve service tonight, the highlight for me will be at the end of the service when we turn out the lights, light the candles (although they’ll be flashlights since we can’t have open flames in the school where we meet), and begin to softly sing “Silent Night” to end our time together. That will be the crowning moment of the day, celebrating the very thing that we celebrate on Christmas: the birth of Jesus.