We’ve spent all year telling other people’s stories. Now it’s time to share ours.
Here are some memories of Christmases long ago from those of us in Features, plus a few more from our very own Santa’s Helpers.
Maybe our stories will inspire you to gather together to tell your own this holiday.
Christmas with Crystal
I have a gift routine that always includes a bag of coal for my younger sister, Crystal, and gold chocolate coins in the stockings for my two children, Liam and Ella.
Liam, now 17, gets an elephant and Ella, 10, gets a butterfly. The reason? When Liam was a baby, he was being raised by two moms. We chose elephants as his theme because elephants are a matriarchal society. Ella’s butterfly comes from the first time her big brother saw her in the NICU. Born at 25 weeks and weighing just a pound and a half, she was fragile. Liam’s 5-year-old self was enraptured and he declared, “Mama! She looks like a butterfly who’s just come out of her cocoon!”
Ever since we were little girls, Crystal and I would grab our pillow and blankets and sleep under the tree. There was something so divine about falling asleep to the smell of pine and the view of the sparkling lights twinkling on the ceiling.
One of my favorite recent memories was the year my now-husband and I surprised Crystal with a Keurig. We had scoured the sales because even though wildly popular, they were still pricey then. A coffee fanatic, she desperately wanted one but assumed they were too costly. Her tears were such a joy.
This Christmas is going to be tough, though. There won’t be any coal in Crystal’s stocking. There won’t be any tears of joy from her. I lost my little sister in February to pneumonia. She was just 41.
— Christina Okeson, copy editor/designer
Santa caper watched
We were five siblings. My parents loved Christmas and made it magical for us.
We left a plate of our decorated cookies for Santa and a carrot for Rudolph and went off to bed. Santa wouldn’t come if we weren’t asleep.
My brother took the risk by sneaking down the hallway to check out what was underneath the tree. We tried to tell him we wanted to be surprised on Christmas morning, and if Santa caught him he wouldn’t leave any gifts at all, but away he went.
In those days Santa’s elves didn’t wrap gifts, so they lay exposed to prying eyes. After gathering his intel, my brother would creep into our rooms and tell us who was getting what. He had an uncanny accuracy for identifying gifts in the dark.
This time he didn’t see what he had asked Santa for, but had hoped it was nestled in the shadow of the branches. Once Mom and Dad turned on the lights, it was time to gather around the tree. My brother didn’t see his robot or spaceship. He got a watch instead. To this day he says it was his worst Christmas ever. Guess Santa caught him peeking.
— Margi Hartnett, creative artist
Chocolates and 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, features reporter
Barbie and Grandpa Ken
I’ve only had one without him, but I already miss Christmases with my grandpa. He died in October last year.
One of my favorite Christmases with him was circa 1995, when my grandparents, Ken and Dottie, were still living in Kansas City — the one in Kansas — and we were still in Lincoln, Nebraska.
For eight years, each Christmas we would drive the 191 miles from Lincoln to Kansas City with wrapped presents in tow for a three-day weekend at Grandma and Grandpa’s. The roads were snowy and icy without fail, treacherously so. It was the Midwest, after all. My parents were just as nervous about driving conditions as we were excited to see our grandparents.
I remember warming myself by their fireplace, struggling to crack open hazelnuts with a nutcracker, and special Christmas dinners in the dining room.
In 1995, my sister was 6 and I was 9. I remember having Christmas dinner when Grandpa got up and left the table. He said he needed to take the trash out.
Us kids didn’t think much of it. But then the doorbell rang.
Grandpa called for my sister and me to come to the door. He said Santa had dropped off a gift for us. Right there on the front porch was Barbie’s dreamhouse; three stories tall, completely furnished, with working lights and a television that glowed.
After making our own Barbie houses out of cardboard boxes, getting a dollhouse like that really was a dream. It was Barbie pink and it was Barbie beautiful.
We thanked our grandparents for the dollhouse over and over, all of us forgetting that it had been from Santa.
— Sara Bruestle, features editor
Seriously, a toy clothesline?
I found a photo of me surrounded by Christmas presents, which is the only reason I recall them even existing. That Christmas, the evidence shows I was given a plastic reindeer, a baby doll, a toy clothesline, a fake clock and a box of crayons.
I have a vague memory of the reindeer, presumably Rudolph, but don’t remember playing with it at all.
I also don’t remember the doll. I had very few dolls because I was not a doll person. They are like people who don’t function.
I remember the clothesline, which is a very weird gift. I mean, what even is a toy clothesline? And why did my parents think I would enjoy it? I had no toy clothes to hang on it. Still, I do remember spending endless amounts of time trying to make it work. It was always messed up. The way it looks in the picture is the last time it ever looked like that.
I remember liking the very utilitarian clock. It had moving parts and I found it satisfying to move the moving parts.
But the biggest score in this picture is the giant box of 64 crayons, which put me in the category of the elite, especially if it had a sharpener in the back — which I don’t remember, but it probably didn’t, because I was always just shy of elite.
— Sue Misao, news producer
The signature stocking
One of my favorite Christmas memories in recent years involves my mother-in-law. Specifically, her tradition of hanging stockings adorned with the first initial of each family member’s name. This had been a long-standing custom since her son and his siblings were children.
I dated my husband for several years prior to getting married, which meant many holidays invited to join his tight-knit family for celebrations. Every year I noticed the monogrammed stockings on display.
The Christmas after we were engaged, something very special happened. When it came time to open presents, I realized an extra stocking had appeared on the fireplace. MY stocking — the soon-to-be addition to the clan. I was so grateful to be accepted into his family in this small and meaningful way, and I’ll always cherish the memory of her happy surprise.
— Fawn Floyd-Baltzer, creative services manager
Grinch infiltrated Christmas
Like I imagine plenty of families do, my brothers and I woke up far too early, roused by the promise of presents, sweets and a free day to play with our newly acquired toys.
Before we did that, however, we would watch the cartoon version of “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” on VHS from start to finish. Every year. To this day, my mom asks to play the new live-action movie (in DVD form, because slowly and surely I brought her into the 21st century).
Honestly, I don’t know why it was so beloved in my family. I’ll hazard a guess that it had something to do with my parents hoping to instill in their children the value of not pinning the season’s euphoria to presents or not finding joy in others’ misery or some nonsense like that.
Mom and Dad, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry/merry Christmas!
— Ben Watanabe, social media producer
The cat-proof train
I was 7, and we had recently acquired our first cat, Puff. The best Christmas gift we could imagine in those days of the mid-1960s, based on months of Sears catalog research, was a Lionel electric train. And on Christmas morning, there it was! A figure-eight layout of three-rail track was under the tree, and the steam locomotive emitted smoke!
This was not my first Christmas, obviously, but it was Puff’s, and he was pretty excited, too — excited about the train, which he occasionally attacked as it went by, and excited about the tree, the lower ornaments on which were easy pickings.
We made adjustments, like making sure Puff was locked up when the train was running. We placed an upside-down laundry basket over him. The cat would have to watch the train from a plastic jail.
— Chuck Taylor, digital news editor
Breakfast at a dive bar
The studded snow tires were mounted. The rooftop cargo carrier was jam-packed with four days’ worth of clothing for three people. Wrapped gifts filled every available cubic inch inside the car.
We were ready for the five-hour drive through ice and snow to a family holiday gathering in the upper Methow Valley.
But as we crested Stevens Pass in a driving snowstorm, we realized we’d forgotten something.
Breakfast. But where, and what, to eat? It was Christmas Day.
We stopped at the first open restaurant, a place in Leavenworth. It was packed. Apparently lots of other folks had forgotten about breakfast.
The dining room was full, but we snagged a table in the bar.
This wasn’t one of the cute faux-Bavarian joints Leavenworth’s known for. It was an old-school dive bar, a place where people slurp Coors Lights and Jack-and-Cokes and play pull tabs. Although the state had banned smoking, a yellowish film still coated the ceiling tiles.
On this Christmas Day, it was a place of convivial comfort and joy, where total strangers smiled and nodded at other total strangers and everyone seemed very happy to be there.
We were served by an overworked but indefatigably cheerful young woman who kept the Irish coffees and ham-and-cheese omelettes coming for everybody. We gave her a 50 percent tip. I’ll bet even the stingiest old grump in the place that day slipped her an extra 10 bucks.
Bellies filled and back on the road, we reflected on the nice vibe that place had. It was a random dive bar, but on that day, it was filled with the Christmas spirit.
— Mark Carlson, news editor