Christmas Past and Christmas Present

Watching “A Christmas Story” on TBS today, I started thinking about everything my mom did to make Christmas special when I was growing up. I can’t remember a single Christmas of my childhood when what I wanted most wasn’t under the tree on Christmas morning. She encouraged me to believe in Santa Claus, even buying (and hiding) separate wrapping paper after I commented innocently at age four, “Mommy, Santa uses the same wrapping paper you do!” We baked Christmas cookies together. She rarely baked, but once a year she made a special Christmas bread with candied fruit and nuts. (I keep hoping I’ll find her recipe for that bread as I go through the kitchen things.) Christmas dinner was always something special – turkey with dressing, or occasionally ham or Cornish hens, fluffy mashed potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, and at least two kinds of pie – all made from scratch. The rest of the year she took shortcuts in cooking and was all about convenience, but not at Christmas.

Every other year we went to Ohio to spend Christmas with Mom’s big extended family. I remember Christmas Eve dinners at my Aunt Ellen’s house, a happy chaos of noisy kids and Uncle Fritz dressing up as Santa Claus. I remember watching The Waltons Christmas specials and calling out to each other from our beds on Christmas night, “Goodnight, Mom. Goodnight, Susan. Goodnight, John Boy.” I remember the year that my cousins and I snuck out of our beds in the pre-dawn to inspect the gifts that “Santa” had left under the tree and the year that we finally deduced, beyond reasonable doubt, that our mothers were really Santa Claus.

The years in between, when we spent Christmas at home because it was my dad’s turn to be on call at the hospital, Mom went overboard with the presents. She’d wrap up silly things like packs of gum and packages of cookies just so there would be a mountain of wrapped gifts beside the tree. There would always be a tangerine in the toe of my Christmas stocking – a tradition left over from her childhood in the Depression, when tropical fruit was a rare treat.

No matter where we were, my mom made Christmas magical. Now it’s my turn to make Christmas special for her.

Last night I took her to the Christmas Eve service at her church. Singing “Silent Night” I put my arm around her shoulders, felt her arm slip around my waist, and then the tears were streaming down my cheeks and I could hardly sing the second verse around the lump in my throat. I was keenly aware how precious this time together is, how blessed I am to be sharing this Christmas with her.

I planned a traditional Christmas dinner. I had to take some shortcuts because, with Mom moving next week, it didn’t make sense to buy all the ingredients to make things from scratch or to have leftovers for weeks. I bought a ham steak instead of a whole ham and a pre-made pecan pie. But I went to three grocery stores looking for Yukon Gold potatoes to make the perfect mashed potatoes. I finally settled on something called Klondike Gold potatoes, thinking they would be close enough. I was wrong. When they turned out gluey instead of light and fluffy, I could have cried. This may be the last Christmas dinner I ever cook for my mom, and I so wanted it to be perfect. But she ate them anyway and she raved about my candied sweet potatoes. And when we said goodnight, she hugged me tight and told me that Christmas was special because of me.

I love you, Mom. Merry Christmas.

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