Christmas in our house was always an exciting time. Even though my parents didn’t have a lot of money, they managed to save throughout the year to make sure Christmas was something special. My brother and sister were out of their Santa believing period by the time I really understood what was going on at Christmas. They were nice enough not to ruin the magic for me though. They didn’t tell me when I was young and was still firm in my conviction St. Nick was a real person, although on the verge of type 2 diabetes and possible cardiac failure, that he was a purely fictional character.
My belief in the jolly fat man was confirmed year after year when I sent my list to Santa in the North Pole, postal code HOH OHO, and got a letter in return a week later acknowledging that he received my list and that I was on the good list. I proudly waved these letters at my mom, exclaiming that he wrote me back. My excitement would build in the week leading to the big day. Free from the constraints of school and able to play in the snow building snow forts and tobogganing, my focus fixated on how many days were left until Christmas morning. Each morning I’d open the little door on my advent calendar and count how many were left until I got presents.
And as Christmas eve finally arrived I was about ready to explode. My excitement was at a critical level. We had our tree (a real one bought from the tree seller guy – I’m sure there’s a name for that but I have no idea what it is.) We were never a religious family. I had never attended church with my family. My only exposure to Sunday mass was forced on me by my sister’s Godmother, and to this day I have never been baptized. However we had a nativity scene set up on the buffet in the dining room most years. The figures were all painted gold, most of them were falling apart and looked more like a collection of amputees than wise men attending the birth of the son of God. I always loved setting this scene up. I would dutifully help my mother unwrap the fragile figures, and place them in their proper place in the manger. Making sure they were all standing correctly and offering their gifts to the baby Jesus.
Before bed I would set out cookies and eggnog for the big guy, make sure my stocking was in it’s place on the corner of the couch. We had no fireplace to hang our stockings by as is custom so the five of us would stake our claim on a piece of furniture. Mine would either be one end of the couch or the beige armchair with a sort of wicker mesh on the sides. In my mind the amount of space I had would translate to how many presents I would get. As I lay in bed, virtually vibrating with Christmas spirit, my father would read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Being a writer and professor of Shakespeare it was virtually impossible for him to stick to the script and not turn it into the greatest dramatic reading of the story ever told. This is a tradition that has continued with my own kids. It is no longer a simple poem about Santa and Christmas Eve, it’s a performance piece. Sometimes to such an extent that my 5 year old daughter implores me to “talk normal”.
My excitement at the prospect of what was to come the next morning invariably made it impossible for me to sleep. I’d toss and turn, I’d lay awake with eyes wide open, I’d lay awake with eyes firmly shut trying to force myself to sleep so the time would pass more quickly. And almost every year while my age could still be counted on one or two hands I ended up in my sister’s bed. I’m not sure why this was a thing, maybe I felt like it would help me sleep. I would crawl into her bed, climb over her and sleep between her and the wall. Sleep here is a relative term because the pattern would continue. Toss, turn, eyes open, eyes shut, to no avail. Sleep never came to me on that night. I could swear I heard hooves on the roof, the ringing of tiny bells, and movement downstairs. The sounds I heard were of course my parents moving around, putting presents under the tree and my dad most likely eating the cookies and eggnog I had put out for Santa. I’d eye the digital clock in my sister’s room every few minutes. Why was time moving so slow!? Why can’t it be 7:00 already? Geez can’t a kid catch a break?Eventually the clock would change from 6:59 to 7:00 and I’d bounce out of bed and head to wake up my parent’s.
I would burst into their room. “Wake up! It’s Christmas morning. Can I go see the presents? Let me go downstairs.” But of course the torture would continue. My parents made sure I brushed my teeth before we went downstairs. My sister and brother seemingly had no problem sleeping all night, they stayed snug in their beds while I bounced around almost raging at the fact that they weren’t getting up so I could open presents. I would go downstairs with my mom and instantly head to the living room. Marvelling at my overflowing stocking, checking the names on all the biggest presents to see if they were mine. Most of the time I wouldn’t even remember what I had put on my list. The items of my desire having been picked out of the Sears catalog and circled, written on my list to Santa and sent off weeks before. I would run around trying to help my mom and dad get their tea ready, the more I helped the sooner I could wake up my brother and sister and get them to brush their teeth so I could drag them downstairs and finally be able to sit and open my stocking presents.
When mercifully we were all seated in our assigned places we would begin opening. First our stockings, usually full of comic books, some chocolate, crayons, maybe an action figure, popcorn or popcorn paraphernalia (I had and still have a bit of an addiction to popcorn), invariably a jar of olives, and some socks,underwear and a toothbrush. Once everyone was done my dad would begin to hand out presents. It was important that this was a process, this event was meant to take time. The wanton destruction of wrapping paper and frantic rifling through presents was not for the Radu household. We were given perhaps 3 presents at a time to open. The speed at which you opened these presents was up to you, but you weren’t getting more until everyone was done. The wrapping paper as well had to be preserved so that it could be used again and again for birthdays and next Christmas. It was not uncommon to see the same wrapping paper or same cards 2, even 3, years in a row. It had to be folded neatly and set in a pile. This habit has continued to this day and still draws strange looks from others as I open gifts carefully and fold the paper knowing full well it’s just going to end up in the recycling.
The process of Christmas morning took hours. We took our time with it, savoured it. It would be nearly 10 o’clock by the time we were done. My mom would make our brunch and we’d settle in for a day of building Lego, playing with Star Wars figures and listening to carols. There would be brief phone calls from Grandparents and Aunts and Uncles. But mostly for me it was making sure I put every piece of my Lego Castle or Pirate ship in the right place and then set to work besieging the castle with all manner of other Lego figures. I don’t remember a Christmas where I was disappointed. My parents always seemed to get as much as they could right. Even if I didn’t get everything I had put on my list I still got everything I could want. Certainly never anything like my dad’s saddest Christmas story ever told (I’ll tell you that story in another post, it’s heart wrenching. Especially for a sensitive 6 year old). And so it was done, the adrenaline that kept me awake all night faded and by the time it was bed time I was more than ready. I would pass out and get my rest for the next day. Boxing day had it’s own traditions I’ll get into later.
Some of these traditions I have tried to carry on with my own kids. We don’t get up at 4 in the morning, I don’t hype them up and get them excited. We take our time as much as we can to open our gifts and savour every moment. Though now it is filled with visiting family, going to one set of grandparents one day and the next set the day after, then back to work. Since I’m not a teacher I don’t get 2 weeks off around the holidays, a luxury my own parents were afforded. But we do our best. It’s exhausting, and we can get a little cranky sometimes. But every Christmas my son and daughter sit with each other, my boy helping his little sister open the gifts that are wrapped too tightly or she’s having problems with. And I get to sit and watch them smile and get excited with each new treasure they discover. I sit and drink my coffee. And plead with them to open the wrapping paper carefully so it can be used again.
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