Since Dad was very active in the American Legion, there was always a lively Christmas party at the Legion clubrooms on Selby Avenue, with Santa Claus making an appearance and passing out bags of candy, apples and popcorn balls. We wore our best holiday garb to this event. Swishy dresses, petticoats and black patent leather shoes. A bowtie for my little brother. New hats and furry muffs.
Then there was our Sunday School program at church, requiring us to memorize and recite our “pieces” - portions of the Nativity story as recorded in Matthew, Luke or John; and singing “How Glad I Am Each Christmas Eve.” We were rewarded for our efforts following the program when we would each get a red mesh stocking filled with hard candy.
Our wrapped Christmas presents were kept in Dad’s den, off the dining room. Only once did I sneak a peek at one with my name on it, carefully loosening the cellophane tape from a gift sent through the mail by Aunt Loretta (who always sent us walnuts from their Oregon orchard, along with my gift as her God-daughter).
I slid the little box out from its wrapping very slowly so I could return it without looking like it was ever disturbed. Imagine my disappointment to discover a book to record birthdays in, with a cross and Bible on its plastic cover.
Now, at ten years old, what did I care about recording people’s birthdays? I was crushed that it wasn't something amazing that I really wanted. But, it cured me, and I’ve never peeked at another gift in advance since.
Our Christmas Eve family celebration began with dinner, served in the dining room, not the kitchen. Rice pudding was served first, a Scandinavian tradition. Served warm and topped with cream and a cinnamon-sugar mixture, what made it really special was that it contained one almond, randomly hidden in one serving. The randomness of this was called into question as we grew older and wondered how winning the almond seemed to rotate so evenly among us from year to year.
But with great anticipation, we quickly dug around to inspect our serving of rice pudding. When the nut was found and the lucky recipient shouted out, a prize was awarded, usually a small toy or candy. Those of us who didn’t get the nut that evening somehow knew there would be another year and our turn was bound to come around.
Then it was time for gift opening.
The nut recipient was awarded the honor of doling out the gifts under the tree. Wrapping paper flew, ribbons were broken, and I don’t remember a time when we were disappointed. Mom always knew what each of us wanted.
There were dolls, games, skates, Tinker Toys, doll furniture, doll dishes, cars and trucks gleefully opened and exclaimed over. One year, the doll of the season was “Tiny Tears” and you could actually feed this doll water from a baby bottle and it would wet its diaper. Then there was the "Ginny" doll.
One year, my sister, Christine, and I each got a doll that looked like a little girl, not a baby doll. As we searched for names for our new dolls, I decided on Linda.
But as Tine was still pondering a name for hers, she noticed a wrapping around the dolls head that said it had genuine saran hair. So her doll became Saran.
Mom and Dad always allowed us to take one new thing, but only one, to bed with us on Christmas Eve. My mother laughed as she checked us all sleeping in our beds. One of us would be curled up with a doll, another with a cash register, one with a toy phone, another with ice skates, and my brother a Tonka truck.
To this day, there has never been a Christmas gathering without the traditional rice pudding being served, and there has never been a Christmas without our family gathering together.
This year, we'll have rice pudding in a hospital room as we're gathered by my mother's bed, speaking in hushed tones so as not to disturb her resting and slightly irregular breathing nearby.
And we'll remember Christmases past, with joy and gratitude for the rich memories we share.
Silent Night, Holy Night.
All is calm. All is bright.