As a child, Christmas was a most magical of times. Before I was old enough to help decorate the tree, my parents would put up the tree Christmas Eve after we had gone to bed, and nothing in life since has ever quite matched the excitement of wakening up in the morning to a glowing tree piled high with presents. Never mind that many of the gifts were practical items like badly needed socks or underwear. Somewhere buried 'neath those practical presents was the one gift we really wanted, even if we hadn't known that it was exactly what we wanted it before we had opened it, even if the Radio Flyer didn't come with snow.
Later, decorating the tree became as much a part of Christmas tradition as receiving gifts. My mother's delicate cut-glass lights from her mother's tree we're always mounted at the top of the tree, and my older brother and I fought to see who would get to blow the delicate glass horn. For me, that, along with the playing of Bing Crosby's "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town," with its heretical, but somehow funny line, "you mean the big-fat man with the long white beard?" heralded the beginning of the magic season.[I'm still unsure if my love of that particular line inspired a later love of sarcasm or was merely was a sign that I was already sarcastic at heart at three.] Early, when money was tight, we would spend a good part of the day popping and stringing popcorn for the tree. In later years, mother would spend time hand-making ornaments, some of which I still use on my tree. For a family without traditions, these became traditions of what it meant to be family.
Of course as I got older, presents became more important. Fort Apache was a much-beloved toy that made my Christmas one year, but nothing ever quite matched the Lionel Train Set I received, probably because trains had been a special part of Christmas from earliest times. Standing in a cold drizzle watching the trains in Frederick and Nelson's display windows go in and out of myriad tunnels until mother would finally drag us inside was as much a part of Christmas as decorating the tree. By the time I was old enough to long for a train, I knew that Mom and Dad, not Santa, would have to foot the bill, and I had no real hopes they could afford such luxuries.
I was sick the whole week before Christmas the year I received my train, and that, too, somehow made it more special. I still remember hearing trains whistling in the distance as I slipped in out of sleep. It was Christmas morning before I was finally allowed to get out of my sick bed. After putting on my slippers and bathrobe, I was allowed to get out of bed and go downstairs. I was far too sick to be concerned that there weren't any large presents under the tree with my name on them. Only after everyone had opened their presents and I was suddenly feeling a little sicker was I told that I should go open the basement door. There running around a huge track that nearly engulfed the whole basement was a Lionel train, with a self-loading cattle car and a barrel loader. Amazingly enough, I was healed instantly and had to be dragged away from the train set hours later to eat Christmas dinner.
For a family that didn't often say "I love you," the thought and sacrifice that went into these presents was all the proof we ever needed to know that we were, indeed, loved.
I suppose from the outside, our family may have appeared to be an incarnation of the Griswold Family in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, but from the inside it appeared a lot more like Ralphie's family in The Christmas Story, which, of course, explains why these, too, have become part of our Christmas tradition.