All was calm, all was bright
We showed one another our treasures: wooden puzzles that we could rarely reassemble, hair ribbons, diminutive books of folk tales or jokes, wind-up toys, dice games, Jacks, and tiny dolls, trucks or wild animals the size of a match box. As we tunneled deeper we came upon chocolate Santas in colorful foil, candy canes and Marza Pan until we reached the tangerine and nuts in the toe. This is how Christmas day began each year of my childhood.
While we played with gadgets and games and tried on new striped socks, Mom and Dad were downstairs putting fresh pine greens and mini breakfast cereal boxes on the dining room table. (We only had sugared cereal in our house on Christmas morning.) Eventually we would leave my bed, strewn with shiny papers and bits of tape and ribbon, to get dressed for the day. The first one dressed ran to the top step and hollered down the stairs, “Are you ready?” Some years we had to sit on the landing until we got the “OK” to descend. Then we raced to the bottom and into the dining room. It smelled of balsam, and the table was set with the same cranberry red cloth as every other year. A small toy of some sort stood at each of our places, but I could hardly wait for the sugar frosted flakes.
It wasn’t until after breakfast, however, when Dad slipped into the living room ahead of us and turned on the tree lights that we took in the full effect of Christmas Day. When my father slid open the heavy glass-paned pocket doors to the living room we saw the lighted tree and gifts beneath it for the first time. My parents were practiced in creating surprise; it was part of the DNA of our Christmases, as predictable as syrup on pancakes.
Christmas started in earnest on Christmas Eve when lights throughout the house were turned off and candles were lit. In the glow, my three siblings and I gathered with Mom and Dad in front of a blazing fire. Seated near the fireplace, Dad read the Christmas story from an enormous and dilapidated family Bible that came off the shelf on this one night each year. I loved the sound of his voice, calm and a bit serious, a tonic that poured soothingly over us and wrapped us in stillness. Every year he wiped away tears as he read. I thought they were drops of happiness for this time together, for the way love was palpable; that’s how it felt to me any way. No one had to tell the four of us that this was an important time. We could feel it, “all was calm, all was bright.”
I held visions of Gabriel, the archangel, and the three kings in my head when I went to bed. In my own way, at age six or seven, I understood the connection between the story my father read and our own living Christmas story. I imagined the people in the Bible story celebrating a special baby’s birth with gifts and following a bright star to a stable where he slept. I liked the idea of camping in a barn snuggled with animals and following a star to find a sweet baby. I thought we were celebrating our family’s births on Christmas Eve, just as the town’s people and wise men had for baby Jesus.
I thought the story Dad read was tender and beautiful though the words were not as important to me as the feeling they conjured in me while we listened to him read in the flickering firelight with our hearts wide open. I was swept up in something powerful on this night that happened the same way every year.
When the story ended, one by one Dad handed us our stockings, youngest first. For several years I stood on a stool to hang my stocking beneath the fireplace mantel. Charlie followed, then Meg, and Pat was last.
My mother and father made our stockings, each with a small stuffed mouse sewn to the toe. They were a practical size for the numerous small gifts that were tightly packed inside. One year, my father made my mother a new, fancy stocking. Unlike the accommodating shape of ours, it was an elf’s leg and foot. While an artistic masterpiece, it was difficult to stuff and didn’t hold much. I thought ours were much better and felt sorry for my mom. We could see Dad intended it to be extra special, and he tied little bundles to the outside of it to make up for its odd shape.
The following year my mother made a special stocking for my father. It was a large winter boot; maybe she intended it to look like Santa’s. In contrast to the delicate shape and shiny fabrics on her own stocking, Mom made Dad’s with corduroy and felt. It was large and sturdy, a size numerous items like screwdrivers, work gloves, duct tape, flashlights, batteries, socks, light bulbs and wrenches could fit in with ease.
Once the stockings were hung my dad read, “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” which we had all memorized, and we kids went upstairs to bed. Then, a holiday ruckus began downstairs.
Our neighbors and family friends arrived to decorate the tree while we were presumably asleep. Too excited to drift off, I often heard people arrive. Decorating the tree was a rite of passage for the four of us. As we grew up, we were invited to stay up a bit longer each year to trim the tree with the grown-ups. I remember the first year I hung five or six ornaments and, years later, when at last I was allowed to stay up for the whole evening. After our family time by the fire and once we were all old enough, Christmas Eve became a full-on carol sing and tree-trimming party.
Ornaments had their own mystique in our house. Along with the tradition of finding a new ornament on the tree, there were also ornament-notes. Our tree was hung with over a hundred ornaments, so finding a new one among them required perseverance. It became an involved game of searching and clue giving.
Ornaments have been passed down from my father’s grandparents; others were from his childhood. Some were so old the paint had worn off and you could see into the globe itself. More times than not, a tiny roll of paper was visible within, and we speculated about what was written upon it.
Each Christmas, my parents bought one new ornament for the tree and continued the tradition of note-writing that came to us through several McClaskey generations. My parents wrote a short note to one of us and then dated, rolled and inserted it through the top of the new ornament to read at some future time, perhaps by an entirely new generation, and only when and if the bulb fell and broke. At times a glass bulb was dropped while decorating the tree or got knocked down by our curious cat or a wagging dog, giving us the chance to uncover the mystery inside: to whom was it written, who wrote it, and what did it say. To this day several antique bulbs hang on our tree with notes inside. They could bear dates from the 1800s.
The year our tree was pulled down by three mischievous chocolate lab puppies, glass ornaments shattered on the slate floor, and Will and Emily thought they had hit the jackpot. They each found several notes written to them among the shards of colorful glass scattered across the floor. They innovated on the note-writing tradition by adding paper to the already tiny notes addressed to them, writing their own messages to a family member, and sliding the notes into glass balls for someone else to discover.
Ornament-note-writing has endured in our immediate family as have other traditions stemming from my father’s German-Irish heritage. To this day, Will and Emily, 31 and 28, claim stockings are the best part of Christmas. And now Sage and August open a stocking with all of us on Christmas morning. Instead of stockings hung from bedroom doorknobs, they are found hanging from the dining room chairs as everyone wakes up and fetches a cup of coffee. I make popovers and egg casseroles full of leftover turkey stuffing for brunch, and we sit around the table talking, taking turns opening stocking gifts, and eating. I know perfect moments are rare in one’s life, but sitting around the table eating popovers on Christmas morning is surely one of them. It’s so simple, so perfectly joyful.
Later in the day we gather around the tree, as we did in my childhood, and give one another gifts. The Christmas Day feast has become a collaborative Christmas Eve culinary cacophony of cooking, eating and toasting to our lucky lives and love. Last year Sage toasted to candy canes.
Christmas traditions have knit McClaskey family fabric together for generations and are part of my growing-up story. I am the youngest of four and, unlike my siblings, I clung to the times our family was together, doing things in solidarity, especially on Christmas Eve. I still hold fast to family, and always will. My effort to keep these and other traditions alive for my children and grandchildren originates in the deep feeling of comfort and connectedness they brought me. I want them to experience the sense of magic and wonder I felt as a child and continue to savor now.
When I was young, I remember wishing the feeling of Christmas Eve would linger; I wished I could carry it with me night after night, month after month. In many ways it did take hold. At unexpected times in my life a strong sense of awe, gratitude and love sweep over me just like the profound peace and family pulse I was fortunate to feel as a child on Christmas Eve nights. Our traditions will outlast me and continue to thread generations together note by note, stocking by stocking.
The Christmas Eve spirit of my childhood I yearned to hold onto does live within and endures night after night, year after year; one just needs to notice.