With temperatures dipping below freezing on a regular basis it's getting harder to ignore the obvious: Christmas is coming, and quickly. Surprisingly, I'm ahead of where I usually am at this point - I've already purchased my holiday cards. Now, that might not sound like much, but for me it's a big achievement. My family, of course, isn't terribly impressed. Their tree is up and decorated, their porch is covered with lights, and mom has worked her Christmas table linens into heavy rotation. Their holiday cards have been written out, addressed, stamped and sealed for weeks, and if past history is any indication they'll finish their gift shopping (checks calendar) three weeks ago. I'm honestly amazed that two so incredibly organized people managed to produce me. Of course there's more to the story than above-average organizational skills. My parents just love Christmas.
When I was growing up we didn't have much money (a tradition I've unfortunately kept going for another generation) but our Christmases were always storybook-rich. In those pre-Black Friday times, the entire day after Thanksgiving was given over to unpacking decorations, testing countless strings of lights, unwrapping delicate glass ornaments and clearing a spot of honor in the living room for the tree; duties all performed lovingly against the backdrop of dad's Christmas LPs. Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, and my beloved Fred Waring. Next on the to-do list was getting the tree. Sometimes I was involved in the process, but most years it just appeared, seemingly by magic, soaking in a pail in the back hall. I can't remember how my dad managed to get a Christmas tree home in our Volkswagen Beetle, but I suspect that would be a story in itself.
December seemed to last forever in those days but eventually Christmas Eve arrived, which was always held at our house. Grandparents, aunts and uncles would drop by for punch and cookies, music and conversation. Us kids would thumb through the Sears catalog for the hundredth time, wondering if Santa had noticed which toys we'd circled or if we'd been good enough for it to matter. Christmas Day itself was madcap. My brother and I ran downstairs first, of course, and the wait for my parents to wake up, get the coffee going and find the Instamatic camera seemed unbearable. After opening gifts we loaded up the Volkswagen and hit the road, first to dinner at one set of grandparents on the North Side and later to dessert at the other set in Fairmount. That wasn't always easy in a Syracuse winter. Sure, there was that one green Christmas morning it was warm enough to play basketball in the driveway, but there were also a few years where we had to brave blizzard conditions to make our visits. Still, we only got stuck once, and it was only about 200 feet from home.
I wonder a lot about why I can't ever seem to get my act together for the holidays. I have the best intentions but there I inevitably am on the 23rd, pushing a cart through the crowded aisles at Target and promising that if I can just get through this, next year will be different. Then again, maybe that's just how it's meant to be. The one year I made good on my promise and got all my shopping done early, I found myself on the Thruway heading for brunch at my aunt's house. Not only were all my presents bought and wrapped, I was hours ahead of schedule, relaxed and whistling a happy tune. Until my car caught fire 5 miles past Rochester.