For Christmas last year my odd-humored dad wrapped up a jar of pickles as a gift for his oldest grandson. A 5-year-old opening canned goods as a present – then still attempting to be polite about it – makes the holiday season well worth the preceding stress.
A larger, industrial-sized jar was under the tree this year. Thus, a tradition, albeit unconventional, was born. And those are the best kind. While I can’t tell you exactly what I ate or received each holiday season, I do remember what makes each more charming than the last.
The picture of my older brother and I as toddlers standing in front of a Christmas tree dressed as superheroes in our Underoos is still framed on my parents’ wall. It’s a reminder that neither of us is as cool as we claim. That gift spawned 20 years of undergarments as a staple gift during the holiday season and has only recently subsided (thankfully).
What has continued, to my parents’ amusement, is the stuffing of stockings to the brim for myself, 28, and my 25-year-old sister. My older brother would likely still awake at the crack of dawn Christmas morning to rummage through his sock, but he got married. And once you’re married, the stocking stuffing stops. His loss. I, on the other hand, likely have several more years of excitement over scoring new shaving razors and other fine toiletries.
My family has always gone big on Thanksgiving and Christmas, from the white lights that run up the electricity bill to the adventure that is putting them up on our split-level house. One year my dad tied one end of a rope around my waist and the other to a tree in the backyard, because I was afraid of falling to my doom. That fear stemmed from watching him fall off the roof a few years prior. So we jimmied a contraption that would have simply snapped, or at least strained, my back if I did tumble. We weren’t in our right minds when we jury-rigged this safety harness. That’s what the holidays do to people.
In another scheme, years earlier, Dad towed my brother and I behind his sedan on our Flexible Flyers – vintage sleds with iron runners – around the neighborhood. Only a few inches of snow blanketed the street at the time, so sparks and gravel flew behind our dangling legs while the neighbors gaped.
For years, my family purchased two Christmas trees (one wasn’t enough). My mother would decorate hers to match the living room carpet and erected another for her children to destroy with strings of popcorn, cranberries and other homemade art.
This season is criticized for becoming too commercialized, which it has. Presents still matter to me, and I go to great lengths browsing gifts for my kin. It’s all very costly and in many ways misses the point. But no matter how great of a gift I buy my mother, I doubt she could remember half of them. Instead, she recalls her trials cooking turkey dinner. Once, a bird actually flew out of her oven and “scooted” across our kitchen floor. Another time, Mom was about to roast the turkey when she realized it disconcertingly lacked skin. She went to the grocery store to exchange it for another. There, she argued as the grocers tried to pawn off on her a bird that wouldn’t have thawed until New Years.
“They were going to give me a frozen turkey but I threw a fit until they gave me a fresh one,” she said.
She remembers that, and with some fondness. And that – not food, nor presents – I hope is the point.
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