By: Gabriela Yareliz
Searching for Memories
I can see myself holding the Christmas carol book, fast-forwarding the little white cassette in my purple boombox past that one song, “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In.” I found that song to be boring. Not sure why. Skip. My favorite one was “Here We Come A-wassailing” (there was a weird sadness to the melody that I liked) and there was also the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” I annoyingly knew all the lyrics. When I would bust out that little white cassette, it meant one thing– time to put up that tree. I think all those years of loud singing are being repaid by my neighbor who just discovered the echo feature on his karaoke machine… sigh.
These days, I have started out my mornings a bit all over the place. Sometimes, I feel as distracted as a cat playing in a tangle of garlands and ornaments. In these early mornings, after I do my Bible reading, I’ve been reading Calm Christmas, by Beth Kempton, which includes many of her beautifully described Christmas memories. It has made me reflect on how Christmas has evolved for me over the years. Different brackets of time in my life held different traditions. No two Christmases are alike, as Ms. Kempton points out, but many have or had similar ingredients to them. My Christmases were magical as a young kid. So magical, I wish I had some sort of magic wand that could transport others to them, so they could feel the emotions and magic I felt. As I got older, Christmas grew to hold more emotion, negative emotion. I associated that winter darkness with some dark moments in my life that unfortunately sort of ruptured for me on a distant Christmas Eve. But, as I have settled into adulthood, I’ve tried to shift away from that, and as Ms. Kempton does, I want to cling to the magic I knew was there. I hope I can encourage you to do the same. Reflect on good times. I firmly believe we all have at least one. It may not be like anyone else’s, but that doesn’t matter. And if you really don’t have anything joyful to look back on, I hope we can inspire the future. Nothing wrong with orchestrating a little magic. After all, Christmas magic seldom happens without any planning. In a way, this post is a post of gratitude to everyone who made these magical moments happen for me.
I am one of the lucky ones. Christmases were wildly festive for me as a kid. I have my parents to thank for that. I don’t remember my first Christmas, but photos reveal it was an awe-filled morning for me. I got a little kitchen set and many toys. I look ecstatic in the photos with all my little treasures.
Another aspect of the Christmas season that was magical was where I lived. I moved around a lot, but a huge chunk of my early childhood was experienced in Michigan. A state that is BEYOND beautiful. Pure Michigan, if you are looking for an ambassador, look no further than me. I am forever proud of being a Michigander. There are plenty of photos of me in tiny snow pants crawling through the snow like a tiny Michelin man, wandering under enormous droopy pine trees whose branches hung down like curtains with my long-haired young mother and my dad wearing his little green Michigan State trucker cap. I will never forget a time we were driving on the highway at night, and I saw a Coca Cola truck with the polar bears and Santa on it. There were lights on the truck’s side mural, and it looked mystical through the snow globe that was that night. Michigan Christmases never disappointed. I lived in suburbs worthy of television with kind neighbors and snow days. Our fireplace going. Me, sitting on the couch with a large red Christmas stories book. I still remember how that book smelled. I loved the story with Santa’s journey and the little illustration of the mouse in the corner.
Somehow, part of our tradition included reading The Christmas Box, by Richard Paul Evans. It’s a book that still moves me to tears– just the thought of the burgundy and ivory cover. I’d make myself warm whole milk with load of cinnamon or hot Ovaltine. Sometimes, we had the fun hot chocolate packets with the mini marshmallows. When we moved to Ohio, we lived in an older house, and I sometimes felt chilled, so I would sit near the floor heating vent and read. That Christmas stories book never got old.
Looking through American Girl catalogs and making my list for Santa was a big deal. I was a huge believer of Santa. As Wilson from Home Improvement says, the spirit of Saint Nick lives in and through all of us. I am grateful that my parents allowed me to experience that. One of the most magical Christmases was when we were moving from Michigan to South Carolina. We were moving right around Christmas break, and we’d be staying at the Air Force Base temporary housing for Christmas. Just before we left, my 4th grade teacher had been reading to us the Addy American Girl book series. Addy was the doll and character that had escaped slavery. I loved Addy. Her courage fascinated me. In my head, as I was preparing for this big move (we had moved before several times but not out of Michigan), I mentally told myself I needed to have courage like her and embrace my new home. Somehow, unknown to me, my parents had ordered the Addy doll for me before we left Michigan. I can’t imagine my mom’s stress of hoping she would get there on time before we left. On a warmer-than-I-was-used-to Christmas in South Carolina, a place rich in Southern history, I opened that box and found the doll of the character whose courage had filled my mind for so many months. I didn’t understand how something like that was possible, but it was one of the most magical gifts I have ever received. It made the new move easier. I felt like I had a friend. Addy was with me.
The School Shopping Experience
The school also played a role in the season. I remember schools would give us catalogs where I guess if we sold something the school would get a cut. It was pointless stuff. Usually, my dad would order some peanut brittle. The school would set up a little shop in the gym, and we could come with money and buy gifts for our friends and family. I always loved that. I often had my eye on a little Cabbage Patch doll (which were popular and expensive), but I never got one for myself because I had a little budget to keep, and I knew I wasn’t there to shop for myself. I hope schools still do that. I doubt it, but it taught me something. It also gave me the opportunity to be giving. It’s hard for kids to get presents for their parents.
Puerto Rican Flavor
Being Puerto Rican, the period of Christmas to Three Kings Day (Jan 6) was always super festive. I have always remembered turron blocks and the Banco Popular annual special, which always came with a certain theme. Watching it was a family affair after we would open the box from my abuela who would send them to us.
We’d usually wait until after Thanksgiving to decorate. That white cassette would get popped in the player and probably annoy my parents as I would start helping assemble the tree. Growing up, we had a white Christmas tree with ecclectic ornaments, including the little creations I would make in school out of popsicle sticks and yarn. I loved doing those crafts. Our tree had a little train we would assemble around the skirt. Once we had finished decorating, one of my favorite things to do was to lay under the tree on my back with my head toward the middle, and I would stare at the spirals of colorful rainbow lights as the living room would get darker.
Night was always a special time, in the winter. Puerto Ricans love doing parranda. This is when you go from house to house taking people with you, singing and surprising people at home. When I was young, I remember my parents would go with friends’ parents and church friends, which meant a sleepover at my grandparents’ house. I would hear about the fun stories and who brought the stereo on their shoulder that time, the next morning. When I got older, a group of church folks would go, and I was able to go along and spend the whole night singing and eating with my parents and other friends. One year, in South Carolina, we brought an American friend of mine tag along from the church, and she probably thought we were nuts. We would drive up to the next house. Everyone quiet and tip-toeing to the door, and then we’d start singing loudly, asking the homeowner to let us in.
When you would get to the last house, that meant food. We’d eat, there were movies on, people on the couch talking, and it often meant an air hockey game between me and my dad. One time, it got so competitive we almost broke a window when the puck went flying.
The Christmas Services and Parties
The Christmas season also included lots of lights and hayrides. Often, these were family church friends who would do the hayrides or we’d go with them to a festival of lights. One of my favorite things were the church services around this season. The services often had special music and lots of candles or poinsettia flowers. Ahead of time, I would think about what to wear, and wear my Christmas best. I’d help out in the church kitchen putting eclairs on trays. A golden glow coming from the ground floor of the victorian looking old church that our church used to rent, snow swirling outside in the Ohio streets, as we’d prepare before the Christmas service.
There was a lady at our Ohio church, who would be in charge of the children’s service. She would stage these odd productions where people would huddle around the baby Jesus in the manger and sing Feliz Navidad to Him. I’ll never forget the year my friends were roped into being the three wise men. The photos are hilarious. They weren’t exactly thrilled. Three gangly 13-year-old wise men. Ha.
The Small Things
There are so many small things that brought me big joy; and so many stories that filled my heart in this season. Sometimes, it was cutting snowflakes out of foil, decorating my American Girl Dolls’ Christmas tree in a corner of my room, and other times, it was the Arthur Christmas PBS special (I never missed it). The joy and anticipation of the season was always abundant.
It was the connections, the laughter, the scratchy velvet dresses with weird plastic net lining, the tights that rip and the shiny shoes that scuff, sitting in that Michigan house window staring at the snow accumulating on the porch with no sign of stopping. It’s that white little cassette and my chorus of one.
I still believe in the season’s magic. It’s the light that shines in darkness that will never be extinguished. The love that generously blankets us like thick Michigan snow.