Growing up, some Christmas traditions were imposed on us by the Church, some by Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, and still others we created ourselves. Regardless of origin, these traditions combined to create something far more meaningful than the sum of their parts.
In large families like mine, adhering to tradition can be irksome. Some traditions could be unfair, like having to get to the church almost two hours before Midnight Mass started because my older brother Tom’s girlfriend played flute for the choir. This cemented in my middle school mind that dating only caused problems (also, prolonged exposure to flute music). Worse, we had to save seats in the pew for my three older sisters, who were old enough to skip the concerts of their brother’s girlfriends and arrive later with friends.
With so many people standing in the aisles for the 90-minute service, late-arriving Catholics eyed the open seats in our pew like Mary and Joseph must have eyed the local inns on that lonely night 2,000 years ago. Like Joseph and Mary, they were politely turned away. My parents sat conveniently on the other end of the pew, suddenly very interested in the hymnal as we explained that these seats were “saved.” It was a bizarre sense of family loyalty that kept us from giving away these coveted spots — even the tiny baby Jesus knew how much I resented my sisters for it. But it was tradition: The Walshes sat together for Christmas Mass.
Midnight Mass wasn’t officially over until my mom cried during the solo of Ave Maria. Then Mom, Dad, my six siblings and I would cram into our station wagon like clowns in a phone booth to go home. Christmas masses bring out the worst in Catholics, so the parking lot was a living denial of God’s Word as cars jockeyed for position to drive home during the 30 minutes it took to escape the church grounds. (Suddenly, that manger didn’t look so bad.)
We’d arrive home and drink eggnog to It’s A Wonderful Life or The Bells of St. Mary’s. In later years, we’d introduce the tradition of opening one present on Christmas Eve. This was somewhat anticlimactic, as I’d spent the previous week sneaking into my parent’s closet and peeling back the corner of the wrapping on all the gifts they’d hidden there. After that, it was simply a matter of acting like I didn’t know what was coming: “A Spiderman doll? Why, this is just the best Christmas ever!”
One of our most frustrating traditions was that we had to wait for everyone to come downstairs before opening any presents. The older folks thought nothing of wasting time on things like showers or going to the bathroom while my younger sister and I shook like cold rabbits at the gifts under the tree. Somewhere along the line, my family nudged Santa out of Christmas. There was no waiting at the mall to sit on his lap, no elf on the shelf, and no milk and cookies left on the counter. I don’t know why we froze Santa out like this, but he’d obviously ticked somebody off. We were left to choose names to fill our stockings, and delegating this important chore to people like my brother Tom meant I’d be stuck with a bag of candy canes and a Mad magazine come Christmas morn. Getting candy canes at Christmas was like getting #2 pencils for a birthday, only with more cavities and better breath.
My favorite Christmas gift, however, was one that took years to open. It lay unwrapped even as I peeled away at the corners with each passing decade. My family eventually spread to all corners of the country and created their own Christmas traditions. In time, each of us managed to unwrap this most precious gift for ourselves: It contained the collected moments spent with the people we love. The years had put a holly-tinted patina to the hassles that accompanied every family picture, the whining while putting up Christmas decorations, and the elbows thrown inside that crowded station wagon. Everything we complained about was reshaped in the forge of time, fermented by nostalgia and loss into fine vintage. It remains the best gift I’ve ever received and the one I most hope to pass on.
Amid all the bickering and tension that inevitably arise during the holidays, don’t lose sight of the gift you and your family are wrapping for later.
You can read more at RobertFWalsh.net and contact him at rob@RobertFWalsh.net or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.