For most people and families, Christmas is all about traditions. Growing up, Christmas was always my favorite time of year because my grandparents would come and stay the night at our house. My brothers and I would spend hours plotting how we were going to sneak our stockings out from the living room in the middle of the night while our grandpa was sleeping in the recliner right next to the fireplace. I don’t ever remember being successful, but it never stopped us from trying. Aunts and uncles would join us later in the day, along with my other set of grandparents. Christmas meant having almost all of our immediate relatives under my roof for a loud and day long celebration and playing games. It was my absolute favorite day of the year, not because of the presents, but because of the company.
When I got to my teenaged years, we moved over five hours away from any family, but that didn’t stop the crazy Christmases. Each year my grandparents, along with an aunt and uncle, would drive up to stay with us for Christmas. We literally had a living version of ‘Christmas Vacation.’ My grandma once almost accidentally set the house on fire, and my uncle was spooned by one of my brother’s friends on a fold out bed. He’s still traumatized by that to this day! My grandpa would stink up the entire kitchen and living room each day with his “morning constitutional.” When we watched the movie each year, we would relate it to our own crazy stories.
It didn’t matter how much snow we had, they would make the trek to our house a day or two before Christmas, and the laughter and hijinks run uninterupted for the next few days. There were so many great memories from those times. I guess that was one of the perks to never living close to your grandparents. My entire life, seeing family and relatives has been a huge deal. Couple that with the fact that we’re an Italian family, and those get-togethers were so loud that outsiders would be overwhelmed the first time the saw it. Yet, we were so welcoming to anyone associated with the family. Throughout the years we welcomed college roomates that couldn’t get home and girlfriends into the fold. They would all comment on how welcoming and fun our Christmases were.
I just assumed everyone’s Christmas was like ours. When you’re young, you rarely take time to stop and think about others besides yourself. It seemed like those Christmases would go on forever. After all, everyone in our family was relatively young and healthy. I had lost one of my grandpas when I was 14. He was a great man that had a passion for his grandkids and laughter, but it was my Grandpa Henry that was always at the center of the family traditions and celebrations. Whether it was wearing some sort of crazy outfit, telling ridiculous stories, or bending the rules to games so he could win, he always had somebody laughing. He was also the chauffeur to get the rest of the family up to our place. He was literally Mr. Everything when it came to the family Christmases.
Then in 2000, he started having a shoulder problem. He noticed a huge growth that was causing pain and limiting his mobility. Shortly afterwards, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. The Christmas of 2000 would be his last one with us. I was 23 years old.
Amy and I got married in October, and I was thrilled he could be there. He still seemed like himself, and he was smiling from ear to ear. By the time Christmas had rolled around, he still seemed like himself with his actions, but all of his hair was gone. We used to joke around about his “turban wrap” comb-over for years, but now he didn’t have any hair to spend 10 minutes winding into place to cover up his bald head. I’m not sure how most people felt that Christmas, as it seemed like everything was normal. He was still cracking jokes and cracking everyone up, but I let my mind start to dwell on reality: this would likely be his last Christmas.
Amy and I were living in our own apartment, which I got to show him. However, that meant I wasn’t living at my parents house, so I didn’t get to spend the entire time with him and the family like I had the previous 22 Christmases. There was one moment on Christmas Eve where everyone else was in the kitchen and living room carrying on with laughter like always, but I noticed he wasn’t there. I ventured to find him, and he was sitting by himself in the family room in the dark just staring at the tree with all of the wrapped presents that everyone had gotten for each other. I didn’t say anything, but I walked over and sat down next to him. I just put my arm around him, and he did the same to me. I’m not sure how long it was, but we sat there in silence staring at the tree and gifts together. I knew we were both thinking the same thing because when the tears starting forming in my eyes, I looked over and saw them in his. Being men, that was our cue that we both understood the moment. Shortly afterwards we both got up and joined the rest of the family, acting like nothing had happened.
That Christmas would be his last, as he died about five months later. He never got to meet my kids, and Christmases were never the same since. Less than three years later, my parents moved back to the St. Louis area and one of my brothers moved to Fort Wayne for his first professional job. The Christmases I had known for over two decades were over. As we started our own families and traditions across the midwest, it just wasn’t possible for us to all gather on Christmas Day like we used to.
Now that I’m in my forties with my own family, I realize that my story isn’t all that unique. Everyone had their Christmas traditions that they cherished, but those have changed over the years as loved ones have moved on. A great friend of mine and I talk about “the layers” in families. That is what we refer to as the generations. It’s tough making that transition from the bottom layer to the middle. Christmas used to be so simple and innocent, but you progress in the layers because those before you are gone. The ones that you made so many great memories are no longer there to create new ones with you. It’s difficult on Christmas not to think about them and wish that they could watch and see your own kids on Christmas. I find myself wishing that my kids could experience just one Christmas like I had when I little.
Each year on Christmas I find myself fighting a mix of emotions. I look at my own family and think how truly blessed I am, but I fight off jealousy and anger that I can’t be with my parents and brothers on what used to be my favorite day of the year. On Christmas, surrounded by my wife and kids, I would frequently find myself feeling lonelier than ever. I hated myself for feeling that way, but then I thought about my grandpa.
Christmas 2000, he was facing death. He could have felt sorry for himself. He could have decided it would be easier for him to stay home and not make the long drive to our place. He could have made himself the center of attention in a negative way, but he wasn’t that kind of person. He believed in making the best out of every situation, so about ten years ago I decided to do the same.
I’m not sure if I ever mentioned sitting there staring at the tree and gifts with my arm around him to people in my family, but that has now become my favorite Christmas tradition. Each year on Christmas morning, I purposefully wake myself up hours before anyone else so I can come downstairs and stare at the tree and gifts by myself. During that time well before the sun comes up and the family starts to stir, I reflect on how lucky I am and have been. I think about all of the amazing moments I have had over Christmas that had nothing to do with presents. I look at all of the gifts under the tree and think how lucky I am to be able to provide the things my kids want for them. As they have gotten older, the piles under the tree have gotten much larger because of how much they love seeing others smile and enjoy the gifts they have purchased. I now view that as a measure of growth in love within our family; the growth that he fostered and developed into each of us as we formed our own families.
Staring at the Christmas tree by myself, I think of all of my family members that I miss dearly on Christmas Day. I think of the ones that are no longer with us. I don’t have any living grandparents, but they’re with me on those quiet, dark mornings while I’m listening to the traditional Christmas music from the 40’s and 50’s. That music takes me back to car rides in the country or breakfasts at their table. I look at the gifts waiting to be opened, and I think about all of the time and money my parents have spent on me over the years trying to get that perfect reaction and feeling of satisfaction from seeing your kids happy. I think about my brothers and their families. I think about the excitement they’re experiencing with their families, and I’m wondering if they still think about our Christmases we had growing up.
Each Christmas I feel completely exhausted by the end of the day. It has little to do with the events of the day, but more about the lack of sleep I’ve had. It’s not from assembling toys late into the morning hours for my kids to play with, but from sitting and reflecting on how lucky I am to be where I am. I now spend most of the day thinking about those who are less fortunate than me. I try to remind my kids that there are so many kids that don’t have presents to open on this day, or they might just have one or two. Those are the things my grandpa would have wanted me to pass down. It’s not about the physical things, but the memories and time spent together.
It’s getting to be alarming that I’ve lived pretty much as much of my life without him that I have with him, but each Christmas morning he is alive and well in my mind. While I outwardly may not seem sentimental to most people, I hold onto memories more closely than most people will ever realize. Christmas is different now, as it is for everyone as the get older, but I’ll always cherish the memories and people that shaped me. Even though we sat in silence on that Christmas Eve 2000, each Christmas morning he and I are together again. It’s my time to speak with him and the rest of my family that made this day so special growing up. Even though we can’t be together today because we have our own families or out time has passed, in my mind and heart we’re together each year in the morning while I sit in the dark with my tree and the gifts. It’s my new favorite part of Christmas, and it’s a tradition I don’t plan on giving up anytime soon.
One thought on “My Favorite Part of Christmas”
Beautiful post. I lost my grandad this year and it wasn’t really the same. To be honest I’m a bit of a scrooge I don’t really like this time of year as I feel like a lot of people pass away in the winter months. Apart from seeing my nieces happy faces at the presents I gave them it has been a bit rubbish.