Friday, December 3, 2010

Christmas Traditions

By John Gilstrap

The season has begun. Forget about my "badass" photo and the thrillers I write--okay, don't forget about the thrillers entirely--I am a softie for all things Christmas.  This is the season for giving and forgiving.  It's the season of beautiful music, lovely sights, and for me, above all, family tradition.

Both of my parents are gone now, and I'm sorry to report that much of my extended family has become estranged over time.  Thus, it falls upon me to instill a sense of tradition upon my own son, even as the three of us build new traditions of our own.

It starts with the decorations.  They go up on the day after Thanksgiving, and they come down on New Year's Day.  Actually, in recent years, the going up part has spilled over to the following day.  The cache of ornaments has grown over the decades, but each one of them has meaning within the family.  My wife, Joy, and I both have a sampling of ornaments from our childhoods, a few of those having been passed on to us from our parents' childhoods.  The treetop ornament from my earliest Christmas trees is now too fragile to risk at the top of the tree, and is now displayed from a candle stick.  The box we store it in is older than I am, having once carried a favorite pair of my mother's shoes, and it's lined on the bottom with the front pages of newspapers dated January 1 from momentous years in our family's history.

It's like that with more than a few decorations.  Christmastime is a journey into family lore.
It's also a time for entertaining.  Every other year or so, we throw a black tie dinner for a few friends at our home.  This is an "on" year, in fact, and tomorrow is the big day.  I can't wait.  We are blessed with many friends, and between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, we will host or attend as many as ten different holiday celebrations, from pot luck at a neighbor's house to cocktail parties to sit-down dinners.  If I can escape the season with fewer than five pounds added to my waistline, I consider myself a model of restraint. 

Then there are the movies that must be viewed with my son.  Tonight we watched The Santa Clause starring Tim Allen.  Before the end of the season, we'll carve out time to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, Home Alone, and, newest to the list, The Polar Express.  The common trait shared by these films is a huge heart.  They're all about people who love each.  Even after seeing it well over a dozen times, I still cry at the scene in Home Alone where Kevin finally talks to the old man in the church on Christmas Eve.

So, what about you, dear Killzoners?  What are your favorite Christmas traditons?  Beyond It's A Wonderful Life (from which I need to take a continued break), am I missing any important Christmas films?  Can we all agree that George C. Scott made the best Ebeneezer Scrooge?


  1. Thank you, John, for the wonderful post. Remembering all my family's traditions brought tears to my eyes.

    I was the oldest of five children, blessed with parents who lived for Christmas. Finding a real tree, often painted white, on a sales lot, started after Thanksgiving. Then came Dad's traditional profanity filled battle with the same strings of ancient lights, screwing and unscrewing individual bulbs until the things lit up. I think he bought them from Thomas Edison. We decorated the tree with a collection of memory filled ornaments, then listened as Mom told the Christmas story while setting out the Nativity scene.

    Christmas Eve, starting at six pm, we each got to open one present per half-hour, until all of them were opened. A stack of Christmas 33's featuring Perry Como, Bing Crosby, and the Chipmunks played on the stereo console.

    We opened the gifts on Christmas Eve to make room for all the loot deposited overnight from Santa. A living room full of unwrapped bounty, separated into individual groupings for each of us, with treat filled stockings with our names on them marking our territories.

    We kids would get up at five am, waited in the hall until we were all ready, then go downstairs to see what the jolly old elf had brought us. He always took time to decorate our dinner table with cookies, candies, cakes and pies as well. That was breakfast.

    The rest of Christmas Day we traveled to see all three sets of my grandparents and all the attached cousins, and brought home a station wagon full of additional gifts.

    My family is now scattered across the country, both parents and one brother gone, kids and siblings separated by marriages, divorces and life in general. It seems the holidays have been filled more with loss and sadness than Christmas spirit these last several years. Dad died the week before Christmas not long ago, and others who followed him always seemed to pick the wrong time of year to do so.

    This year, for some reason, I have yet to give Christmas much thought. Until I read your post.

    Thanks again, John. Because of you, I'll be getting the tree out of the garage today.

  2. Nice holiday post, John. You have some wonderful, lovely traditions. We're all envious, at least I am.

    At some point on Christmas day, I watch National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. I have no idea how many times I've watched it, but I can pretty much recite it from memory. I always laugh at the same places and cry at the others.

    There are always at least 2 TVs tuned to the round the clock showing of A Christmas Story. Another movie I've watched at least a zillion times and never tire of.

    One of our family traditions is what we call the Wacky Gift Exchange. This involves a large gathering of family and friends, each of whom brings along a very non-serious, wrapped gift worth no more than $20. Each guest draws a number from a hat. Number 1 goes first and picks and unwraps a gift. Number 2 can then choose to take the gift away from number 1 or pick a still wrapped one. Number 3 can choose to take any gift opened so far or pick a new one. It pays to be last. The gifts are a scream and the laughs are continuous as guests fight over their favorites.

  3. Some of our family traditions have changed and expanded over time. My parents had six children (I'm the oldest), there are five of us left. Two are in another state now so we don't always get to see them and their children at Christmas anymore (and definitely not this year as my sis-in-law was just in surgery yesterday to fix her twice broken ankle from their turkey bowl last week).

    Our household opens presents on xmas eve- that way we've had our quiet moment before everyone comes over the next day for the mob event (we always opened presents on xmas day as kids). We have our traditional Henriksen Christmas cold-cuts extravaganza (so much easier when everyone floats in at slightly different times). We will chat while listening to Christmas music from the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and the Ventures. I love watching my nieces and nephews open up their gifts- they are so much fun.

    And it's not Christmas until we've seen Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in White Christmas.... oh, and then there is mom's favorite The Bishop's Wife with Cary Grant.

  4. We love the Christmas season, too, John. As for Christmas movies, our all time favorite is the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol. As good as George C. Scott was, Alastair Sim remains, IMO, the iconic Scrooge. His "happy dance" in the morning is one of the great moments in film history.

    I'm also a sucker for Miracle on 34th Street. Not just for Edmund Gwenn's Oscar winning turn as Santa, but because the film is still so wonderfully relevant. ("Make a buck, make buck. That's all anybody want to do anymore, is make a buck...")

  5. My family celebrates back east, and I'm sad when my husband and I don't make it back for the festivities. The focus of gift giving is a tradition called Grab Bag, where everyone brings fun and inexpensive gifts. People get to "grab" them from each other as they go around the circle, and sometimes the competition is fierce!

    One of my favorite films of the season is the 1964 Claymation version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I think they still show the original ads with Santa riding the Norelco electric razor. I always feel a thrill when Rudolph finally soars into to the skies at the head of the team!

  6. First things first:
    1 - Nice house!
    2 - You still look badass in your tux.

    Okay, now we can move on. Our family's must-see movies are:
    - A Christmas Carol with, yes, Geroge C Scott
    - Micky's Christmas Carol
    - Emmet Otter's Jugband Christmas
    - National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
    - Polar Express
    - Christmas on Sesame Street
    - Charlie Brown Christmas

    With the exception of Polar Express, these are all movies from my own childhood that I'm passing along to my two daughters who will, hopefully, pass along to their kids one day.

    The decorations are up and we're heading to the Radio City Christmas Spectacular in NYC tomorrow. This'll be my 5 yr old's first time. Can't wait.

  7. Great post John.

    We have a box tradition too. Our ornaments are in Harry and David pear boxes and I have one of the very early ones. Maybe late 30s early 40s. I don't know what my grandparents put in them originally but they now hold the old hand blown ornaments that my parents bought at the end of their first diplomatic post in Occupation Germany. Since they were headed to Jordon for their next post, my mother sold all their winter clothes and filled the steamer trunks with Christmas ornaments for their families. Over the years the ornaments have been passed back to my bothers and me. A true treasure.

    As for Christmas viewing pleasure: in our house, and I'm sure my brothers concur, it isn't Christmas without Dr. Suess's How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I love both the book and the Chuck Jones animation version. Sadly, the movie with Jim Carry was a huge disappointment.

    As to the Christmas Carol, with all due respect to George C Scott, I have to agree with James that the 1951 Christmas Carol is the best.

    Reading the Christmas Carol aloud is one of my favorite childhood memories. My big brother gave me a beautifully illustrated copy for my 16th birthday. And though it broke the rules about never mixing a december birthday with Christmas, I didn't mind. Especially after he organized a Christmas Carol reading party a week later. Our neighborhood friends came by and listened as we read the book aloud from cover to cover. It took us hours and I think the two of us were the only ones who listened to the whole thing but it was wonderful to hear the story in full and celebrate the language. That Christmas every stuffed animal that appeared from under the tree was given a Dickensian name.

  8. Dave, I love the tradition of one gift opened every half hour. How delightfully excrutiating! And your version of Christmas morning breakfast is every kid's dream. I'm guessing that the sugar crash a few hours later gave your parents some peace, too.

    Joe: Ah, yes. A Christmas Story. How could I have forgotten? I love the line that goes something like, "My father wove a tapestry of profanity that continues to hang like a cloud."

    Chaco, I forgot about White Christmas. That's a movie that works on so many levels.

    Jim and Claire, I concur that Alastair Sim made a terrific Scrooge, but I think Gene Lockhart is way too milquetoast, and that version of Tiny Tim is sweeter than Dave Williams's Christmas breakfast.

    Kathryn, Rudolf is another classic, but I haven't seen it in years. As a kid, the Land of Misfit Toys made me very sad.

    Matthew, thanks for the compliments. Your list of Christmas movies contains entries that I've never even heard of. I'll have to check them out. We went to the Radio City Christmas Spectacular probably ten years ago. My goodness, what a show! In fact, here's advice for everyone: Add a Christmastime trip to NYC to your bucket list. DC is a beautiful city in its own right, and so is Chicago; but New York is in a leage of its own this time of year.

    John Gilstrap

  9. John -
    If you have not watched National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation give it a try. I add my whole hearted recommendation of this funny heartwarming tale. A family tradition for us.
    There are great characters and innumerable comic touches. (Joe M. - I'm sure you've noted cousin Eddies natty outfit including the black dickie with the white v-necked sweater).

  10. TJC, cousin Eddie is just one of the amazing characters in NLCV. And like the "leg lamp" in Christmas Story, I would give anything for a set of the "moose" eggnog glasses from Christmas Vacation. Found them on eBay but they are really expensive.

  11. My wife came from Korea in the eighties. While Christmas was celebrated among Christians there at the time, it was primarily observed with serious religious services. My first Christmas with her in 1987 was like watching a child seeing it for the first time. The tree, the lights, the stockings, the smells and the smiles, everything was something new and unexpected. And keeping her from peeking into the presents before Christmas day was harder than keeping a 7 year old from peeking into the secret hiding place in the closet.

    These days our Christmas eve is spent at church. Groups of adults get up and sing or otherwise entertain us. Then the teens and kids perform their Christmas shows. This year I filmed a remake of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" using our k-6 kids as the live actors. Once we get home about midnight we open the gifts after we get home. Christmas morning we sleep late, then meet family and friends for feasting and celebration. The tree and lights stay up until the first or second week of January.