Here are some of the things I meant to share in my last post—some of my most cherished traditions. Hopefully my nostalgia stirs some comforting and uplifting remembrance among others. I’ll list them in the form of a top ten list, because, well, I have a strong affinity for top ten lists. The order here doesn’t really mean much, I don’t think.
10) Christmas morning pancakes. My mom has long made me pancakes in the “shapes” of things I was most interested in for that particular Christmas morning breakfast. And it really doesn’t take much to make three round, connected blobs look like Mickey Mouse. Then it was T-Rex, then a basketball, then a skateboard, then Ken Griffey Jr.’s head, then a guitar. I think this year I’ll ask for “trickle-down economics” and see what she comes up with.
9) The Grotto. I love going to this outdoor Catholic sanctuary in NE Portland every Christmas, something I’ve done as far back as I can remember. They have live music in a large cathedral, puppet shows, Christmas carolers, llamas, some live actors, carnival-style treats, and colorful lights all around. Some of us went the other night, and I was grateful to sit in the sanctuary for a while, looking at the images and being reminded of the wondrous and profound significance of the Christmas story. The Grotto is also a great place to simply stand in the middle of the courtyard and enjoy the festive atmosphere all around. Standing closer to the hot cocoa and popcorn and farther from the llama area helps this atmosphere, too.
8) Singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with my now-wife Joann. This is actually only a two-year tradition. Last Christmas, when Joann flew to the other side of the world to see me, her not-so-sure-about-marriage-yet-boyfriend, we had the opportunity to perform for the mayor and city council of Xiaogan. I gave a speech about my appreciation of the city (which was so flattering to the mayor that my words made the next day’s newspaper) and Joann and I sang the abovementioned Christmas song. I love the song, and Joann and I seem to blend well when we sing it. Singing it this year (and in years to come, I imagine) brings back warm memories of my China experience and my wife who traveled so far to see me.
7) The Pomander. Before I was born, my mom acquired some sort of scented, wax “thing” in the shape of three Christmas carolers. Me and my sensitive nose grow weak in the knees for a good smell, and I was enamored with this particular smell—kind of a pine-spice scent—and have been ever since. The thing—or “pomander”—is at least thirty years old and still has retained its smell. I love walking by and catching a subtle whiff of its scent. Nobody else—friend or family—seems to quite enjoy the smell as much as me. That’s fine…this is one thing for which I truly need no outside validation to feel justified in how I feel.
6) Opening presents with Snickers, the family beagle. Sadly, Snickers is on his last legs. Actually we said that a few years ago…he’s now over 18 years old—about 130 in dog years (though I don’t really believe “dog years” are actually a thing). My mom always makes a point to buy him some treats/toys, wrapped for him to open. In his younger days, he got pretty excited and was able to mostly open them on his own. With age came a little less enthusiasm and the need for a bit more help from me. Fun tradition for me/us. He actually might just be humoring me, thoughtful old thing.
5) Uno and an inflatable reindeer. This tradition actually died long ago, though I remember it as a highlight from my younger days. Typically, after spending Christmas Eve with some extended family, we’d venture over to another, slightly more distant part of the family (great uncles, second cousins, etc) to visit. And I remember being six or so and playing Uno with “the guys”—an array of men who I am still not totally sure exactly how I’m related to them (I’d have to have my mother explain it to me again). I specifically made a point every year to sit next to “Norm,” an older guy (slightly larger man with a nice mustache, if I recall), who I could attack with a barrage of “Draw-Fours” and witty six-year-old jabs. That tradition seemed to die, as more of that side of the family became a bit more geographically scattered, I believe (and age caught up with a few too, I think). A dead tradition I still remember with fondness. Oh, and the inflatable reindeer. I actually don’t totally remember the deal with this—I think it was another thing Norm and I fought over.
4) Christmas Eve Service. My childhood church in Woodland—Woodland Presbyterian Church—closes their annual Christmas Eve service by passing out candles to everyone, which are then methodically lit and held while “Silent Night” is sung by the church body. We then blow out our candles in unison. It’s a very beautiful, sublime, peaceful moment I enjoy every year, one of the more sacred parts of the Christmas season for me. I also think the simplicity of candles and a cappella voices is a nice contrast to the busyness and chaos and consumerist spirit that can overwhelm us at Christmas and distract us from the more hope-filled message of Christmas.
3) Egg Nog Lattes. A semi-recent tradition discovered soon after I made the leap from “coffee-is-gross” to “I-need-coffee-to-avoid-headaches.” The Christmas season used to begin after Thanksgiving for me; now it begins when Starbucks starts putting out its holiday drinks. Amazing how this is likely not just true for me, and how much Starbucks has come to be a part of the Christmas experience for so many. Also, more recently, I discovered a late-night alternative to egg nog lattes—egg nog with rum. I think that’s probably more egg nog as egg nog was meant to be experienced.
2) Christmas presents. From the giving end of things, the only real steady giving tradition I still have is getting my Grandma an Egyptian-style perfume bottle…I believe this year marks the 13th year of this tradition. As for receiving presents, I am an only child, and my mom loves to give gifts. A good combination, if you like “stuff.” Thinking back to Christmas presents over the years from my mom is kind of a fun gauge of where I’m at in life and what’s important to me. Last year the best gifts were a number of theology/ethics/culture books that I quickly devoured over the next several weeks. In the years previous, highlights included a subscription to “Beckett Baseball Card Monthly,” a street hockey goal, Super Nintendo, and perhaps the prize—a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle sewer/lair for my turtle (and villain) collection.
1) Christmas lights and “Ooooo.” My mom and I used to drive around looking at lights. The rule (don’t know who enacted it) was to point at lights, kind of waving your fingers, and saying “oooooooo!” One of my family-favorite “cute kid comments” (we all have them) from the Christmas season was shortly after Christmas, when most of the lights had been taken down. Apparently it dawned on three-year-old-me that the season was past, as I uttered at some point in the car: “Lights gone…pits.” I don’t remember saying it, but I don’t think my Dad is lying to me.