Harlequin Heartwarming is a romance line that celebrates love, family and traditions. They are the glue that holds us all together. As there are only twelve days left in our Heartwarming countdown to Christmas, I’m going to share twelve, treasured holiday traditions that bind and define my family to this day!
1. 1. Ornament Beauty Contest- Once we’d decorated the tree, my sister and I would select our ‘contestants’ and lay these fragile glass beauties on the floor, judging them on color, shape, and design. The winner got to hang her ornament in the coveted spot, just below our Christmas angel. Broken ornaments were automatically disqualified, and the contest was suspended while we hurriedly cleaned up the mess and prayed our parents wouldn’t notice.
2. Santa’s Workshop- as we were a family long on love and short on funds, my parents relied on ingenuity and items scavenged from the Salvation Army. After Thanksgiving, a ‘Santa’s Workshop’ sign appeared on our basement door, and we were told that elves had been sent to work on our one-of-a-kind presents down there. If we peeked, they would instantly vanish. Yikes! The weeks spent pacing by that door, stopping to listen with an ear pressed to it, wondering why Santa let his elves sometimes say bad words, was torture! But in the end, some of the most amazing presents emerged from this ‘workshop’ including a huge kid’s kitchen that was much better than the Mattel version, a beauty salon with blow dryers that worked if we used our imaginations, and an artist station where we could finger paint, sculpt and color. I always felt like the luckiest kid since my presents were made especially for me J
3. 3. Christmas Bake-off: My mother and five of her six sisters lived close to one another and loved each other dearly. Yet a sort of shadow fell on us during the third week of December when my mother began laying out her recipes and writing long lists of ingredients. A flurry of phone calls heralded the start of cookie baking time as each sister jockeyed to claim one family recipe or another. Everyone loved the ease of our jam-filled thumbprint cookies and no one wanted to be stuck making our most complicated family cookie: the dreaded Cartellate. It required making a homemade honey wine, a pasta machine, and a deep fryer. But after much maneuvering, each sister had her assigned cookie. My mother baked dozens of the same cookie and we all got together on the weekend before Christmas to exchange the treats and gifts. Everyone left with platters of the best assortment of cookies I've ever had- to this day. Yum.
4. Dog Grooming: We were fond of strays and took them in whenever they wandered close enough to our house to nab them- lol. Yet these skittish pets, though loving, were not the most domesticated. Rather than tame their wild spirit, we let them live as they pleased save for their annual Christmas season bath. We’d give them a scrub that ended with us as wet as our dog, and gifted each with a large rawhide bone that they happily chewed until morning J
5. Dad Shopping: Although my mother spent most of her time with the elves in Santa’s workshop, my father eschewed that and drove us to a store devoted entirely to toys. I marveled each year at the extravagance of a place that didn’t also sell powdered milk and scratch off tickets. My sisters and I reverently strolled down the aisles, my father taking notes when we expressed interest in one item or another. At the end, he hustled us to our car and asked us to name our top three gifts in order of importance. I was always careful to list them in price order because I knew that Dad would be talking it over with Santa and The Big Guy didn’t have a lot of money to spend on all of the kids in the world. It was an anxious and giddy wait in the back of that Oldsmobile as we second guessed our choices and fervently hoped for what we wanted most. At our father’s yell, we all knew to duck our heads and cover our eyes in case we saw Santa. The sight would turn our gifts into coal! To be sure we didn’t see him, my father always opened the trunk for a bit. Once it shut, we knew it was safe to uncover our eyes and sit up again.
6. Christmas Movies: Thank goodness for TV Guide! We poured over it when it arrived, circling the dates when Charlie Brown Christmas, The Grinch, Rudolf, Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town would be showing on regular channels. We taped a list of dates and times next to the TV and popped popcorn and dressed in our best flannel nightgowns for each viewing, singing along with Burl Ives no matter how many times my older sister, Jeanne shushed us.
7. School Elves: Our art teacher/Fleetwood Mac Super Fan would assign us a wonderful project each December that… better still… could be a gift to our parents. I never worked harder on anything in school than I did on clay ashtrays, papier-mâché hearts, finger-painted family portraits, elbow macaroni frames and multi-colored woven oven mitts. While an A on a test made my mother smile, these gifts brought her to tears. Impressed with the importance of this mission, I lavished all of my time on them until I got them just right.
8. 8. Christmas Trouble: It was inevitable, we weren’t the Waltons by any stretch, that one or more of us got in some serious trouble during that all important season. While I never liked angering my parents, there was more urgency when it happened so close to Christmas. Santa was watching, they’d sternly remind us when we quarreled over things like who got to play Barbie and who got stuck being Ken, whose turn it was to ride the bike to school, and who was responsible for the broken ornaments on the floor. Ultimately all was smoothed out when my father showed us the piece of coal he got one year as a boy, the tangible evidence working its magic every time.
9. Christmas Caroling: Since most of the kids in my neighborhood had about as much in the way of funds as we did, we cobbled together a singing group that began sporadically practicing in my friend, Francine’s basement. Our plan was to ride bikes to a more affluent neighborhood, sing carols, and hope for a treat or- better yet- some money! We’d start off with about twelve or so participants and by the time the performance day arrived, we’d be lucky if four to five showed up. Still, we soldiered on, working our way from one twinkling house to another, jumping for joy when we got cookies, warm cider, and yes- even some change. My favorite moment was a time when an elderly woman who’d once yelled at me to stop riding in her neighborhood gave each of us a hug. I’d never felt so special before.
10. Midnight Mass: The smell of incense, the previous nights of restless sleep, and our caroling excursions all added up to a mighty struggle to stay awake as the priest chanted and sang, prayed and lectured. The minute my eyes drifted closed, I’d get a swift kick from my sister Cathy or an elbow from Jeanne. If they were suffering, then so was I. But the service wasn’t all bad. In fact, it really was beautiful. The choir sounded heavenly, the message was always uplifting, and the chance to speak my heart to God buoyed me. Although I trudged into church, I always floated out of it.
11. Jingle Bells: Unable to sleep on Christmas Eve, my sister Cathy and I would whisper to each other, wondering what Santa would bring, fretting about which list we’d landed on this year. At some point, our anxious conversations would be interrupted by loud, jingling bells. They rang so long and so clearly, we knew that Santa was in the house that very minute!!! We held hands (we shared a bed), squeezing each other and trying not to make a sound. If Santa knew we were naughty kids who hadn’t gone to sleep, he’d take away our presents. In that way, Cathy and I woke in each other’s arms every Christmas morning, a warm sensation I still miss to this day.
12. Hurry up… Now Wait: No matter the time, regardless if only the barest pink rimmed the purple sky, the first to wake- usually me- would run into the hall and shout “Merry Christmas!” followed by “Hurry up!” Cathy stumbled out after me and my older sister, Jeanne, took longer since she was too cool to get that excited about anything. When my parents’ bedroom door remained firmly closed, we banged on it until we heard them groan, say a word or two we weren’t allowed to say, and their bedsprings creak. It was only until Jeanne threatened to go back to bed, that my father opened the door and swept by us, majestic in his plaid bathrobe and brown corduroy slippers. My mother gave us all a hug and told us to wait on the landing while Dad checked to make sure everything was alright for us to look.
I never knew what that meant except that it felt like forever as we squirmed, tapped our feet, and held our heads, waiting for the ‘all clear’. But no matter how much this tested our patience, we knew better than to disobey since one look from us before Dad checked it out would instantly turn everything to coal. Finally, after the smell of coffee drifted up the stairs, my father yelled that it was okay to come downstairs. Like racehorses, we bolted for the tree (even Jeanne escalated her saunter to a quick step) and instantly began figuring out which unwrapped presents where meant for whom. In the end, although I sometimes I got the wrong doll, or a game I hadn’t asked for, I ultimately learned that Christmas was about celebrating with family. The gifts, cookies, money and so on didn’t matter nearly as much as sitting on that wooden floor, surrounded by those I loved most. Although I’ve created my own traditions with my daughter and husband, I still follow the most important one: cherishing time with loved ones.
If you have a special family tradition, from years past or present, please share it with us! I will choose a winner from the comment section to receive a personalized, autographed copy of my Heartwarming novel, WISH ME TOMORROW and a bookmark J Please check my facebook account, http://www.facebook.com/karenrockwrites tomorrow. I will announce the winner there and provide you with directions on how to contact me with your mailing information. Wishing you all a wonderful holiday and a Happy New Year J