What is it about Christmas that leaves most of us feeling nostalgic?
Is it a notion or a magical childhood for the fortunate filled with wonder looking back as they grow old?
I was one of the lucky ones who had an imagination-inspired childhood – being allowed to express dreams and hopes of what I wanted the world to be. I thank my mother for that.
The warm glow of the holidays increased my over-the-top ideas, as even back then my mind was a magical hot mess.
While my mother encouraged my wild imagination, she recently shared with me that my father was not as in-tune with the high expectations and dreams that were far off from becoming an accepted reality. I never realized that until now.
Fast forward to the present. Fast forward to the tragedies and health struggles that knocked on my door, defiantly trying to define me. Feeling discouraged at times but realizing the importance to always discover a solution to pick myself up serves as one of the key traits to achieve true happiness in life.
This rule of thumb should be in in all of our playbooks. We all have our burdens to bear but no one can make a better life for themselves until they look deep and rediscover the past magic.
I am not referring to a hocus-pocus type of magic but a sense of recalling better days. It may be different for every one of us. Think back. Keeping the warm memories alive is not hard. It is a habitual ritual that began for me after my father’s sudden death at the young age of 57.
The 1970s were good to me. I am referring to the simpler days of staying out with neighborhood friends until the street lights turned on, racing Big Wheels down the sidewalk as the quick pull of the hand brake skid me into rapid circles – understanding as a child the power of the vertigo experience.
Rewind to the fall of 1974 – the tradition begins. It was the day after Thanksgiving and my brother and I hopped in the back seat of mom and dad’s yellow Chrysler station wagon, sharing our peace sign with drivers every time we reached a red light. With the wagon’s back seat from that era commonly facing backward, our travels became a unique adventure when Mom persistently looked back, reminding us that we had better be offering the peace sign and not unwelcome gestures.
As we pulled into the Darms Lane Christmas Tree Farm, the anticipation was pure childlike madness. I ran through the lot, trying to find the perfect tree before anyone, as it usually seemed to be Mom that had the keen eye to spot our annual family Douglas fir.
We tagged the tree as it was the honor system back then, leaving our selection known for other tree-seekers to kindly move along. This chosen tree would have a new home upon our return, when we reappeared to cut her down the first week of December. It was only a couple weeks away, but asking a child to wait a few days was borderline cruelty.
The Christmas season was the kick-off to wonderment, brimming with various holiday traditions, such as televised animated holiday specials – Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Frosty the Snowman (still tearing up when Frosty melts into a puddle, coming back to life with a magical black hat). Of course mom had to watch her favorite Scrooge from A Christmas Carol, but he had to be the Scrooge from 1938, Reginald Owen.
The radical idea of skipping Rudolph or any holiday special never crossed my mother’s mind. Back then the daily newspaper printed the television shows with times, which came in handy as my frugal mother refused to purchase a TV Guide. With no internet, pause or rewind back then, God help you if you spent more time than expected in the bathroom during the commercial break. You were out of luck my friend. Our reckless racing down the hall bestowed a few stubbed toes and bruises from whacking a knee against the wall when mom hollered, It’s back on.
We placed the massive, aromatic tree in the family room as witnessing my folks balance the 7’ tree always involved a sense of drudgery. Not only did the monstrous beauty have to be standing straight but the tiny screws provided inside the tree stand usually made his fingers bleed from monotonous securing and twisting. Being a child still in the midst of learning compassion, Pop’s fingers bleeding was not my concern, my focus was the symbolic box filled with tinsel, lights and traditional ornaments that spelt F-U-N. Chop Chop. We had decorating to do.
After the long ordeal of grounding the tree was accomplished, we hauled that familiar box, with Zenith Color TV stamped on all four sides, inside. The nostalgic box seemed more tattered with every year, as it was set beside the tree for an afternoon of decorating, holiday music and conversations of Christmas’s past.
I found it difficult to maintain my enthusiasm, carefully removing traditional ornaments as if they were historic glass valuables to be auctioned off at Christie’s museum. Like many parents, who kept those priceless ornaments constructed by their children, they pathetically hung on the tree as the macaroni has turned green and the glue has lived its lifespan with yarn falling from Santa’s beard. Mom still seemed proud of her treasures.
Traditions continued as the voices of Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford could be heard when I wandered into the family room. I can still envision Dad sitting in his recliner with a bowl of walnuts on his lap, silver nutcracker in one hand and a large bowl filled with walnut shells beside him that rested on the shaggy, rusty, orange carpet.
Mom prepared her Croatian & Polish dishes for the holidays while dad’s football season had finally arrived. The walnuts were a key ingredient in all of Mom’s Croatian and Polish dishes – Zagorski strukli (cheese danish), Orahnjaca (walnut rolls) and Croatian cookies. My father cracked away as my mother jubilantly hummed for endless hours as the kitchen was her playground. Her joy and warmth was contagious during the holidays. I now take for granted how happy she was back then.
We rolled out the dough, defiantly making a monumental mess on the counters, floor, face and apron. She kept a clean house but the mess we made in the kitchen was almost embraced. There was an occasional commercial break from football when dad greeted us with freshly cracked walnuts, devouring more walnuts than I added to the recipes.
Our holiday cookie endeavors were much of the same, minus the walnuts, with the added touch of sprinkles, sparkles and paint splashed onto our baked masterpieces. Brightly colored decorations adorned our glimmering edibles generously spread across the counters, tables and holiday tins for future deliveries to our friends and neighbors. My mind races back to a photographic vision saved in my memory bank. How could a home overflowing with the hustle and bustle of the Grand Central Station, now be as quiet as a cabin in the deserted woods?
Life happened. Loved ones passed and divisions amongst family members later reared their ugly heads.
I cherish the warm memories I am blessed to retain, realizing others may not have the same opportunity to embrace the absolute best times of life.
Rewind back – Occasionally my folks hosted holiday parties. I was the usual suspect when the hot buttered rum batter went missing as I was an absolute sugar-fiend growing up. Thankfully, diabetes spared me as I later refrained from eating sugar cubes offered at holiday parties and sugar packets hid underneath my pillow after a family visit to Sambo’s restaurant. I wasn’t fooling anyone, including myself.
Fast forward to the present when the stresses of the day have stolen my happiness; being thankful for a secret weapon. I actually look forward to retiring to bed on those discouraging evenings, having my head rest on the pillow, creating the power to go back in time…in my mind. We all have that inner power.
Eyes closed, thoughts wander and I am back at Grandma and Grandpa’s for Christmas Eve. Grandpa has the traditional piñata hung but it is difficult to see due to the room filled with smoke, resulting from Grandma being a dreadful chain smoker. I knew she was in there. I could hear her voice. It was almost like a game – find Grandma.
After we greet one another, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, the windows open to release the smoke as this tom-boy joined a game of Kick the Can to play with her big brother and cousins, who all happen to be big boys. Instantly, the faux leather shoes with the pilgrim-like buckles are kicked off, revealing the blisters on my aching feet, when Mom echoes to behave lady-like. Maybe she felt the words had to be said but the reminder was rarely heeded as Kick the Can was a Christmas tradition. Kick the Can was serious business.
After our game concluded and my red hair ribbons had fallen off and found a new home somewhere in Grandpa’s garden, Grandpa blindfolds us for our indoor holiday piñata adventure. Truly an adventure as for the life of me, I cannot comprehend blindly swinging a bat indoors when Grandma’s ashtray went flying across the room every time blind piñata took place. Of course at the time, I was the best idea ever.
I may not have a degree in psychology but life has taught me what works for my happiness and what should be tossed from the realms of dangerous overthinking. My preferred medicine to combat the blues entails reflecting back to the best memories of my childhood. An immediate warmth of calm floods my heart when I mentally place myself back to a specific place and time.
Think back to one memory that brings you never ending joy. May your reflections bring you peace, comfort and hope.
Farewell to those wonderful holidays that provided a magical childhood, but never say farewell to the memories. Reminiscence is not overrated. There will always be a space inside our minds as long as our minds are healthy enough to remember.
May this upcoming holiday fill your heart with traditions of the new and old.