the things they wanted

Christmas with my family took a definitive change nine years ago with my second older brother (and middle child) married his wife. He had been out of college for almost two years and our eldest brother had married the year before him. It was that first Christmas of 1996 that looked different than any Christmas I’d known.

Christmas has always been my favorite time of year. I know that many people love Christmas, some hate it, but I’m known for my love of Christmas. I don’t do an overproduction of decorations, I don’ t insist on cheesy Christmas songs, I lean more toward the Martha Stewart of it all where sometimes you have to stay up all night to bake cookies to give away and Christmas cards go out at the latest the second week of December. That’s how I love Christmas, through baked goods, elegant decorations, good (Ella and the Blind Boys) Christmas music and quality Christmas cards (Cranes when the wallet is not lean). This particular time of year lifts my spirit and my mind like nothing else all year can. It is the season that I believe in and nothing else. It’s not about gifts or parties or perfect bows (though who doesn’t love those), it’s about the traditions and the family.

Christmas Eve 1996 found my mother and father and I alone in our house for the first time. It had never been just the three of us. There had always been myself and older brothers to wake with and pretend to be excited about what Santa had brought to us. I was the last stronghold for Santa with one brother 12 years and one brother four years older than I; I was the lone believer for several years. But, even after the believing years were over, my brothers and I were still made to wait on the front hall steps while our mom and dad finished (or sometimes began) the readying of our respective spots were Santa left our presents. And the stockings had to be stuffed with a magazine or book, some candy, and an orange, always and orange. In 1995, it was just my second older brother and I and I’m sure we still did the old routine though later in the morning as we had learned to sleep in through his four years at college and my one. I’m sure it was strange then too like a little bit of Christmas magic had left, like Santa had left the building, this time for real.

But, nothing would prepare me for the Christmas when only three remained. My parents’ house was beginning to no longer be my house and yet it was still technically my permanent residence. When I came home for Winter Break I helped (or was forced to help) my parents ready the house for my brothers and their new wives. The tree had already been put up and decorated by the time I made it home in late December, a task I didn’t mind missing (my mother being a bit particular about lights and ornament placement), but the cleaning wouldn’t end until Christmas Eve. And that Christmas morning I suddenly felt the pressure that every only child must feel. I waited on the steps as per our family tradition and listened as my mom said things to my dad like, “Where did we put ____?” and I would say, from around the corner, “Don’t forget the orange,” to which my mom or dad would then plod into the kitchen through the back hallway to retrieve the traditional item. Christmas that morning was just different, my parents’ eyes were solely on me and their piles of presents were small because I would be the lone present giver for several hours and I was a college student on less than a budget. That year, piles of presents would remain under the tree until my brothers arrived and we would first eat a fancy dinner that my mother had fretted about all day and then we could open the remaining presents, Santa nowhere in sight.

This Christmas there was no waiting on the stairs, a first. All presents were wrapped, none left by Santa, and the stockings had been reduced to one, mine, and this year as I approached it with my mother standing beside the fireplace, coffee in hand, I said, “And the old orange,” to which she replied, “I think we forgot the orange,” and she had though my father had bought some especially for me the day before.

None of this change has dampened my love for Christmas and the sparkle in the air that lingers from Thanksgiving to New Years, but I guess my Christmas love, the magic I used to feel has just shifted a bit. It’s not imperceptible; it’s full of cacophony and flying wrapping paper. Because now, the family Christmas presents may be opened the day after Christmas, but those presents are torn into by children ages 9 months to 8 years and although there is no longer a Santa leaving presents as I wait on the stairs, there are five children who spends restless Christmas Eve night tucked in beds hours away and make phone calls on Christmas morning to the three left in my parents’ house saying, “I can’t wait to come to Roanoke,” and that, though it’s not surprising, is the most wonderful Christmas magic there is.

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