What is better than Christmas when you’re a child? The anticipation of Santa’s arrival, homemade cookies and fudge, visits from family, and sledding the next day made our family holidays in Cogan Station, Pennsylvania the best Christmas ever. Christmas Eve meant dinner by candlelight, and my dad would read “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” by Clement C. Moore before sending us off to bed. My brothers shared the bedroom across the hall from me and I could hear them chatter about all the gifts they hoped Santa would bring overnight in his sleigh.
My parents had one rule, however: When Christmas morning arrived, we couldn’t go downstairs and open gifts until 7:30. One Christmas, my brothers and I broke that rule. We got up early, way before 7:30. My older brother Joe led the way, careful to avoid the creaky stair. We crept down the few steps together to the landing where our stockings hung from the banister. We each reached inside and pulled out a treat. I got a black licorice pipe that was shaped like Santa. I took a big bite. It was hard and chewy and I didn’t really like it. We tiptoed down the rest of the stairs into the living room where our tree was overflowing with gifts. Everything was wrapped…except a metal John Deere tractor for my little brother Justin. For some reason, I sat on the seat and said, “It has power steering!” and I cranked the steering wheel, which made a terrible screech.
“Get. Back. Upstairs!” my mom called from her bedroom. “It’s not 7:30!” We were busted. The way she yelled, I thought maybe Christmas would be canceled that year. We high-tailed it up to our rooms and I ditched the sticky licorice pipe in my stocking along the way.
Much later, at an appropriate hour, we zoomed down the stairs again, this time skipping right past our stockings. Our living room was full of beautifully wrapped gifts. Our parents didn’t buy us many gifts or sweet treats throughout the year, so Christmas was a big family celebration.
Our tree was a large evergreen cut from our own property, as our house was nestled among 43 acres of trees. It was decorated with homemade ornaments, glass balls, silver garland, and tinsel. Its fresh scent filled our living room. Next to the tree was a wooden toy box that my Pop Pop Lewis had made. He painted it and put decals on it, and attached handles and wheels so it could roll across our wooden floors. It was filled with more wrapped gifts.
That year I got a Malibu Barbie doll with a dune buggy and pop-up trailer. And Cathy Quick Curl, a doll with hair I could actually curl. Joe got a G.I. Joe action figure and a set of gear to go with it. He also got an electric train that blew smoke. Justin got a Fisher Price car garage and the John Deere tractor.
After opening gifts in our pajamas, we all went back upstairs to get dressed up. We wore nice clothes on Christmas because we’d be receiving guests. My dad would pick up his parents, my Pop Pop and Grammie Lewis, who lived in Williamsport, about 13 miles away. We would exchange gifts and eat dinner together. My mom’s parents and younger siblings would join us later for dessert, which usually consisted of homemade pies—mincemeat, apple, and pumpkin. Various aunts and uncles would trickle in throughout the day to have a cup of good cheer and snacks, like Grammie Lewis’s homemade Chex mix, ribbon candy, and nuts in the shell.
After a day that lasted so long and that was filled with so much joy, we gathered for a family photo on our gold velour couch. We were worn out, everyone except my mom, who had taken a tiny catnap earlier in the day.
When I remember that Christmas from the 1970s, I wonder what made it so special. The gifts? Yes, they were special! The food? Yes, I always loved the sweets, especially the ribbon candy with green edges and little pictures in the middle. But most of all, I loved the people. The celebration. The time together. And now as a parent, I hope that my husband and I have created The Best Christmas Ever for our own kids.
Our family traditions have changed over the years. Some of our lasting traditions include attending a candlelight service on Christmas Eve and then opening one special gift, and eating French toast casserole on Christmas morning. It bakes while we open gifts. And hanging stockings on our own banister.
Will our traditions sustain our daughters when they are older and missing home? What will they carry on into their own lives? What new traditions will they create? Only time will tell.