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Published: Tuesday, December 24, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Shared experiences make Christmas special

  • James Stewart (center) as George Bailey, is reunited with his wife, played by actress Donna Reed (third from left), and family in the final scene of F...

    RKO Pictures Inc.

    James Stewart (center) as George Bailey, is reunited with his wife, played by actress Donna Reed (third from left), and family in the final scene of Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life."

Before the excitement of guest greeting, gift opening and cocktail quaffing, think for just a moment about your vision of an ideal Christmas.
We're not talking about some Pottery Barn or Martha Stewart vision. We're talking about reality.
It's too late now to have everything done weeks ahead of time. There's no time left to decorate. What isn't baked by now will likely have to wait.
But haven't you thought about a cozy, gentle gathering of your closet kin, with some beautiful music or an old-fashioned book to read aloud? Would you like the kids to put down the electronics and gather in the same room?
Don't give up the dream. It's up to you to set the scene. In many cases, after some initial resistance, you may find the whole family together, sprawled on couch and floor, living the memory they will tell later.
Here are some memories of holidays long ago from all of us in Features. Maybe they will inspire you to gather together to tell your own stories to your children, to remember when times were simpler and magic happened.
Enjoying the hush of Christmas Eve
When I was a kid, Christmas Eve meant early dinner and early bedtime, even though Grandma and Grandpa were there, and my big brothers didn't have to go to bed.
I was allowed to "sleep" in my parents' room with the radio quietly tuned to Christmas carols.
Mom would sit on the edge of the bed and read Clement Clark Moore's "A Visit From St. Nicholas" (we called it "'Twas the Night Before Christmas"), and I would ponder what "coursers" were and why it was a miniature sleigh. Santa seemed pretty big to me.
After she went downstairs I would lie there trying to sleep to make the time go faster. It never worked. It seemed an eternity.
It was probably only a few hours because we were a Christmas Eve family. My neighbors were Christmas morning people. Our family opened presents in the dark of night. I thought that was better than having to wait till morning.
Then Mom, Dad, Bob and Jack went off to midnight Mass, and Grandma and Grandpa were left with the task of getting me to go to bed ... again.
When I had children of my own, I had to compromise: My husband grew up with Christmas morning people.
But I love the hush of Christmas Eve, the lull before the storm. The carols and the tree lights, and the kids in their jammies. So I would read, reciting really, "The Night Before Christmas." Then tuck the three of them into our bed and let them pretend to be asleep till they finally drifted off.
Ray would dig out the gifts and the wrapping would commence. "Is this one from Santa or your parents?" "Did you get batteries?"
If "It's a Wonderful Life" wasn't on TV that night, we could fire up the VCR. Sometimes we watched it twice.
Now, I'm usually with one set of grandkids or another. I'm in charge of reading Clement Moore's poem and explaining what "the down of a thistle" is.
After the little ones are settled down, we watch "It's a Wonderful Life," and wrap presents and put together trikes.
I can hardly wait till the grandkids are old enough to watch with us.
By the way, if you need your "Wonderful Life" fix, it's on TV at 8 tonight on NBC.
— Sally Birks
Of Christmas pageants and the Gospel of Luke
My mother was a schoolteacher. She taught us history and poetry and literature and music and how they all went together.
At Christmastime, she was always putting on a Christmas pageant at school. Her students often stole the show, like when one of her second-graders spun through the crowd in his top hat to "Frosty the Snowman."
We knew all the songs from Burl Ives' record "Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas," all the words to "Walking in a Winter Wonderland," complete with gestures.
I would coax my mom to play my favorite hymn, "O Holy Night," on the piano.
When things settled down on Christmas Eve -- we were Christmas Eve people; Santa always came when we were taking a walk after dinner with Nana. Every year! -- my mother would read to us.
She read from the Gospel according to Luke:
"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
"And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
"And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
"For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
"And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
"And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."
Melanie Munk
A gift of chocolates and filterless Pall Malls
My first job after college was as a social worker at a state mental hospital. That's where I met Mildred. She'd been a patient there for decades and didn't have any family or visitors. She'd always say, "Why don't you take me to your house for Christmas?"
Well, one year, I did.
I had only one child at the time, and we always stayed overnight on Christmas Eve at my parents' house. I told them that in addition to their grandson, I was bringing home a state hospital patient. My mom said she'd get the guest room ready.
Mildred was on her smoking bench, clutching her plastic-sack overnight bag, when I signed her out of the hospital on Christmas Eve.
At the house, Mildred settled into an easy chair and kicked up the foot rest. She nodded and smiled. She wasn't one to yak.
She had told me the only thing she wanted was a box of chocolate-covered cherries. I guess they were easy to eat because she didn't have any teeth. She usually smoked cheap generics, so I bought her a carton of her favorite filterless Pall Malls.
Our family didn't have any designated tradition other than to be together -- and to stay up half the night, doing whatever we wanted.
Mildred's clock was set to state hospital time. After opening her presents, she headed off to bed.
In the morning I smelled smoke. I found her in the living room, in her chair, puffing on a Pall Mall. Her plastic bag was packed. She said she was ready to go back to the hospital.
She squeezed my hand and thanked me for inviting her.
Andrea Brown
Reading Dickens' 'Carol' aloud as a family
My dad's father came to the United States from Denmark, so Christmas Eve was a Scandinavian treat.
We made a fire, ate good food -- including pickled herring and my mom's German springerle cookies -- and opened up all the presents (except for the ones Santa Claus would bring in the middle of the night, of course).
Among my favorite Christmas Eve memories is one from the late 1970s, a couple of years before my dad died.
My father was a Charles Dickens fan, in great part because the British author wrote about the struggles of poor people, a concern my father shared. Dad had a collection of old copies of each of Dickens' books.
So on this particular evening, he took "A Christmas Carol" off the shelf.
With the bigger crowd on hand that night, including other family members and my boyfriend, my dad proposed that we take turns reading the entire novella. Wondering how long it would take, people were apprehensive at first.
Then Dad began reading, and the familiar story drew us in.
We all sat by the fireplace, sipping hot drinks and taking our turns, enjoying each scene of Ebenezer Scrooge's Christmas Eve.
It was perfect for our Scandinavian sensibilities: light in the midst of darkness.
And realistic, too, in the sense that for many people, Christmas is a time of cold, lonesome despair.
The story's themes of redemption, forgiveness, generosity and compassion left us satisfied and touched.
At the end we shared smiles that squeezed back the tears.
Gale Fiege
Story tags » Christmas

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