12 Days of Christmas Reading

The 12 Days of Christmas Reading promotion starts today!  Go here to get a complete list of all the authors involved and comment on that page to enter to win copies of some or all of the books! If you enjoy this essay, be sure to enter to win a copy of The Toilet Business, my collection of humorous essays.

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You never realize how weird your family is until you’re an adult.

At least, I didn’t.

When I moved out to Oregon from Missouri in the early Nineties for college, I assumed most families who celebrated Christmas had similar traditions to mine.

Here’s how Christmas went down in the Wallace household in the Eighties:

My mom decorated the crap out of the house.  My sister and I had our own Christmas trees in our rooms.  There were wreath-shaped novelty soaps placed by the sink. (Under no circumstances were you to use those soaps!) The mantel was gussied up with silver and gold spray painted and glittered pinecones.  My dad’s recliner space was usurped by the enormous fake tree – always fake except for the year I was sixteen and I guilt tripped Mom into getting a real one. Those were my vegan-Birkenstock-patchouli-no showering days.

Tinsel. Garlands. Styrofoam egg carton ornaments my parents made when they were newlyweds. Bubble lights. Popcorn strings. Construction paper chains.

Lights in the bushes out front. Lights on the sliding glass door to the back porch. Luminaries lining the driveway.

It was awesome.  Christmas perfection.

On Christmas Eve, my sister and I would put on our white tights and our nearly matching dresses – often a variation on the theme of what my mom was wearing.  Lots of plaid taffeta and velvet and scratchy lace collars. Mom would put our hair in hot rollers and let us wear some of her pearlescent pink lipstick and lavender cream eyeshadow. Dad would wear a nice navy or grey suit and top it off with either his London Fog trench coat or his orange-tan leather jacket that made him look kind of like a pimp, so we never let him wear a hat as well.

We’d pile into the station wagon and slog through the snow to the midnight service at church.

Trinity Lutheran was always decorated beautifully, a lot like our house, but with more poinsettia and less glitter.  We’d all take our seats in a pew about halfway up the aisle and we sat: Dad, Stacey, Valerie, Mom. We’d wave to our friends and stage whisper to one another about how sparkly we all looked.

The organ music began up in the balcony, the choir practically blowing the doors off the church with Hark! the Herald Angels Sing and I’d get this rush, be so overwhelmed by the Christmas of it all that I’d want to cry.

That feeling would stay with me throughout the service. More singing, the sermon, the acolytes extinguishing the candles. Joy to the World! while Pastor Gerike walked down the aisle, a smile on his face, his Bible clutched to his chest.  We’d file out and meet in the lobby and wait in line to talk to  him. Back slapping and handshakes for the men, hugs for the women, boys pulling on their clip-on ties, us girls trying to walk with grace even though the crotches of our tights had stretched out and shimmied their way down to our knees.

Then we were back in the car, back home, putting out cookies and milk and beer for Santa and carrots tied with bows for his reindeer. My sister and I would put on our nearly matching flannel nightgowns – me navy or lavender, my sister red or pink – and we’d get a few hours of sleep before we’d sneak to our parents’ room and climb in bed with them, asking every few minutes if those were in fact reindeer hooves we heard on the roof.

At six a.m., we’d drag our parents from their bed and my sister and I would wait at the top of the stairs while my mom went down to see if Santa had visited.  The answer was always, “I think I see a few more presents than were here last night.”

We’d give ourselves rug burn on the backs of our thighs as we slid down the stairs. I’d run to my corner of the family room and my sister would run to hers. Wrapping paper thrown into the air. Pictures taken with Barbies and Walk-mans and telephones shaped like pianos and nearly matching sweaters.  Mom got earrings and a silky blouse, Dad got leather gloves and a Bill Cosby sweater.

My sister, on alternating years, got coal in her stocking or a clown figurine. Both made her cry, but she was soothed on that day only by maple candy. We’d tell her she was a good sport.

Mom made biscuits and gravy, scrambled eggs, cinnamon rolls, bacon. We’d have tall glasses of orange juice and eat the gigantic apples we’d received in our stockings, while she cooked.

During breakfast, Mom started making lunch.

Lunch included a birthday cake for Jesus.

Four hours later: Ham, pea salad, ambrosia, scalloped potatoes, noodles, green beans, rolls with butter, dressing, steamed carrots, relish tray, sherbet and Sprite punch.

We were stuffed.

Mom would bring out the birthday cake. It had about a million lit candles on it – because GO BIG or get the heck out of my awesomely dramatic family’s  home – and we’d sing.

We’d blow the candles out and clap and say Happy Birthday Jesus to the ceiling. We’d force ourselves to eat a piece of cake. It would’ve been rude not to.

Then we’d retreat back to the family room and my sister and I would lie back under the Christmas tree and look up at the lights. I’d take my glasses off and brag about how much cooler a view I got due to my blurry vision. My sister would tattle on me for bragging.

And Christmas would be over for another year.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, and yes, when I talk about my Christmas memories, people do laugh at me for the Jesus birthday cake, but that’s not the tradition I assumed everyone had.

I assumed that everyone had a house full of Christmas, got to dress up nice, got a church rush, ate too much, received too many gifts. I thought that surely, on Christmas, everyone got to have a perfect day.

When I realized that wasn’t true, I also realized how lucky I was to have my weird family and the childhood that I had.

Merry Christmas!  I hope you have the best possible weird and wonderful holiday you can, whether you’re reliving old memories or making new ones.

12 thoughts

  1. I LOVE it!!! My Christmas was much the same in my house, except no Happy Birthday Jesus cake, though we do that with our church now on the Wednesday before Christmas and I LOVE IT!! Our church didnt have a midnight service on Christmas Eve, but we went out with all the aunts uncles and cousins on Christmas Eve in a long line of cars to look at Christmas lights! And When we got home Santa had been. Christmas days were always reserved for running from house to house opening presents and getting stuffed to the gills! Our Christmas is much the same now that I have a family of my own. Except we have added eatting out and catching a movie to our Christmas Eve tradition. And this year, our church is having a Christmas Eve. Maybe I will even bake a Happy Birthday Jesus cake at our house too this year! Thank you for sharing your memories with us!!!

  2. Stacey,
    I actually got tears in my eyes at your re-telling of your Midnight Mass story. My family, too, attended Mass at 11p.m. – 12:00a.m. The thrill of hearing the organ, the chants, the hymns, holding chandles like ‘big-girls’ as my parents watched over us with wary eyes…..I still get goosebumps when I think of it. Thank you for rousing such a powerful memory in my own mind with your essay!
    Have a Happy Christmas – or Yom Yeshua! as my family would say. Nadja

  3. Your Christmas sounds so fun! Mine feels awfully boring in comparison. Then again, like you said, you never realize how weird your own family is until you’re an adult. Speaking of which, you had a vegan-Birkenstock-patchouli no-showering phase when you were my age? Hee hee. For some reason, I love knowing this.

  4. Stacey, that’s the most fun I’ve ever heard of on Christmas! I love the Jesus birthday cake — after you hear it, you have to wonder why you never thought of it!! I hope your Christmas is magical this year. Happy holidays!

  5. Thanks, J.R.! We’re trying to do a couple of extra special things this year that I hope will be traditions for us – the kids are finally old enough to start remembering things from year to year. We’re giving the Polar Express train ride at Hood River a try and we’re taking my daughter to Zoo lights for her birthday. Have you ever been to Zoo lights? I hear it’s pretty great.
    Happy Holidays! So fun meeting you this year, we gotta get together in person one of these days. 🙂

  6. That’s awesome, Stacey. My family was not into the decorating. We had one fake tree, period (my mom said she was allergic to real ones, but she was faking. They have them every year now). That’s why I decorate the crap out of my house these days.

    BTW, I think the Jesus birthday cake is sweet. (no pun intended)

  7. I think that’s just beautiful. I love that church rush. And oh! I know exactly what you mean about taking off your glasses and getting twinkly lights 🙂

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