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Special Memories of Christmas

December 3, 2008

Our Christmas-related activities, " after children" were many and varied over the years. They changed somewhat every few years because of where we lived and how old the children were. But the ones I call " traditions" were started when our family was young, and they never changed. Some were influenced by our own upbringing, but the ones that meant the most actually started when our first child was born.

One of the things we always did was to put up a " real" tree, usually a fir tree. As we moved, the height of ceilings in our houses changed. When we finally landed in Texas and built a house that had a family room with a very high ceiling, we began purchasing a taller tree, usually something that was about 10-12 feet in height. It became a family event to select the " special" tree from one of the many Christmas tree lots that lined the major streets leading to our surburban neighborhood. But it was a " parent" event to get the large tree home on the top of our vehicle and inside the house when we got home.

Placing the lights on the tree in the early years was always an " adult" task, since the children were still too young to help with lights. But as soon as the lights were in place, the children l began clamoring about, trying to see who would be " next" to climb the step ladder to hang their special ornaments on the tree. When the tree was all decorated and the lights turned on, we started a fire in the fireplace (whether it was cold outside or not!) and sipped on hot chocolate with miniature marshmallows on top, sitting quietly for a few moments to admire in awe the advent of another Christmas season.

Another of our family traditions involved driving around the week before Christmas to see the Christmas lights in our development and others nearby. Where we live, homeowners' associations take displays of Christmas lights very seriously, and some residents try to outdo their neighbors by having their rooflines, trees, and yard displays decorated by lighting professionals, often the weekend after Thanksgiving.

One of these developments continues its lighting tradition, started about 20 years ago now, with red lights outlining the driveways and walkways that are bright enough to make you think you are nearing the runway of a large airport! Strategically placed throughout the neighborhood are painted and lighted storyboards that tell in pictures and words the story of " The Night Before Texas, that is..." It was great family fun then and now, and the children, even after they became teenagers, never seemed to tire of reading outloud the story of Santa Claus in his " buckboard" and cowboy boots, making his rounds to deliver gifts to all the children in Texas.

One of my own family traditions growing up in the South was a Christmas Eve family gathering at which we ate fruitcake and drank egg nog. For the adults in the family, the egg nog was " spiked" with rum or with some good old Kentucky bourbon. Don't ask me where they bought the liquor back was likely illegal, since the legal sale of hard liquor did not begin in Mississippi until a few years after I graduated from high school.

But the fruit cake and egg nog tradition was not one that ever took hold in my own family after I had children. They liked neither egg nog nor fruitcake. But we simply replaced those holiday items with ones they did enjoy, such as Christmas cookies, lots of hot chocolate, and spicy, mulled apple cider, stirred with a cinnamon stick. More often than not, we enjoyed watching a family Christmas movie together, or when the children were younger, we read Christmas stories and listened to carols, always ending with the ever popular, " Silent Night."

Until the children were teenagers, we allowed them to open one gift, and one gift only, several days before Christmas, in an effort to settle some of the anticipation that grew increasingly greater with every day leading up to Christmas morning. Christmas morning always came early in a household where five children had been waiting for weeks for this particular day. After they descended on the gifts, we enjoyed a big, homemade breakfast, that usually consisted of French toast, waffles, or pancakes, with Canadian bacon or little smokie sausages, and juice.

Attending Christmas Mass was always a part of our Christmas morning, but as the children grew older and could stay up longer, we began going to Midnight Mass, something that became a very special time for all of us. We especially enjoyed the singing of Christmas carols and a performance by the Bell Choir that began thirty minutes before the start of Mass. One of the many special memories I have of my children growing up was the first time we attended Midnight Mass, when one of my sons expressed amazement at how few cars were on the streets of our surburban city at 11:30 p.m. Little did he know at that moment how many times he and his brothers and their friends would be out at 11:30 p.m. as teenagers driving on those same streets.

As the children have grown older and have families of their own now, they have started some of their own special traditions that often mimic those of their childhood. Sometimes, when we are lucky, they include us. But what is important is that family traditions continue to overlap the generations and take with them the special memories of Christmas when we were "growing up."

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Janice Tracy is a native Mississippian who writes about genealogy and family history.  She writes two blogs, Mississippi Memories and Cemeteries of Dancing Rabbit Creek.