Nostalgia, kindness and cheer seem to make up the Christmas holidays.
There are food bank donations, coin drives and toys given to children who need it; bright light displays and over-the-top decorations.
But my favorite part of the holidays are the memories it creates.
My Oma, Margarete, experienced Christmas during the Second World War, when you couldn’t buy new toys or even fabric for clothes. Everything went to the war effort, and yet, her grandparents were still able to create the wonder and magic of the holidays in their living quarters at the family clock factory in Schwenningen, Germany.
The children were not allowed to see the tree until Christmas Eve, so my Oma and her sister would try to peek through the door keyhole, hoping to catch sight of the Christkind (the Christ Child) and angels at work, bringing gifts. When those doors finally opened, she said they’d just stare, admiring this beautiful tree that glittered with candlelight. It was only after the initial-awe she’d remember to ask her grandfather about the Christkind, but by that time, it was long gone.
“I was always too late, every year,” she said.
They’d sing a carol, Silent Night or O Tannenbaum, blow out the candles resting on the tree before the gifts could be opened – all toys her grandmother had saved over the years. Sunday clothes were made from the fabric of adults’ clothing and once, her grandmother made her a cloth doll.
She’ll remember the holiday all her life, she said, telling me about the bells that would ring out in the town, the stollen her grandmother always made and the visit from Santa Claus every year, on Dec. 6, when he came to see who’d been naughty or nice. She was always naughty, she said, chuckling.
I’ve heard the story, or at least parts of it, several times this December and not once has my Oma told it without a smile on her face, or hands clasped to her chest as she relived the joy of seeing that tree for the first time.
For those who celebrate Christmas, the awe of the holiday experienced as children or through the eyes of children, the excitement of meeting Santa Claus, the anticipation of catching Santa Claus (or in my Oma’s case, the Christ Child) or the joy of seeing presents miraculously appear under the tree on Christmas Day, can build memories that last a lifetime.
I’ll always remember sneaking downstairs to sleep on the bottom step, with full view of the living room fireplace just to see if I could catch Santa Claus in the act. My mom will never forget the Christmas I was almost two. She and my dad had decorated the tree the night before, and told me that when I went to sleep Santa would come in the night and presents would be under the tree when I woke up. They weren’t sure I was old enough to understand.
That morning, I woke up and they called me down the stairs. My mom said she was standing next to the tree so she could see my face when I saw it for the first time. My eyes widened and filled with wonder and I brought my hands to my mouth.
“It reminded me of what Christmas was all about when I saw your eyes grow twice the size,” my mom said. “I saw the belief in your eyes and that it’s real. I will never forget that.”
Stories, like these ones, reminded me why it’s so important to give to others, whether it’s helping fill cupboards or sponsoring a family so there’s new and used toys under the tree. You’re helping foster memories and that wide-eyed wonder for another generation, so they can carry on the tradition.
That’s nothing short of magical.