Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ghosts of Christmas Past

In December 2004, I published a column in SJ Magazine about my family's Christmas tradition. I'm reprinting it here (but not with my first magazine headshot -- yuck) as a way of wishing you and yours a wonderful holiday!

Ghosts of Christmas Past
And all the times we shared

By Jen Miller

Our Christmas morning routine was this: no matter how late we'd been up the night before, my older brother and I woke up sometime around 4:30am. We'd hunker down in my room and play board games until 5:45, then we'd stop to watch the numbers on my clock wind down to 5:59. Then, hand ready to turn the knob, we'd bound out at six to wake up our parents. They'd moan and groan about the hour, then wake up our younger siblings. My mother sent us, one by one, to the bathroom to brush our teeth while my father prepared the living room. He had a movie camera before anyone had heard of VHS, and he'd set up big, bright lights, normally used on construction sites, in the corners of the living room.

Mikey and Tracy lined up on the top step with Jimmy and I behind. My mother stood at the bottom of the staircase to make sure we didn't run down too early, and she took the opportunity to tease us about what she saw. "It looks like there's a big present for Jimmy here," she'd say, "and an odd-shaped one for Tracy. I wonder what it could be."

The minutes stretched on as we shimmered with impatience. We'd jump up and down, clap our hands. We'd jump up and down, clap our hands, and urge my father to hurry up! Finally, finally, he gave us the all clear, and we'd bound down to gawk at what Santa had left, filling the room with oos, ahs, and squeals of excitement. We'd run to search for presents with our names on them: from Santa, from Mom and Dad. It didn't matter. All the ribbon and bows and wrapping paper sparkled under the tree, which was, even then, overburdened with kitschy ornaments.

But we couldn't open those presents just yet. My mother made us sit for one picture in front of the packages and tree, smiles wide and bright across our faces. Then we'd sit on the floor while my father played Santa, giving us a present each, one by one. We'd watch for what everyone got: Legos, Barbie, new books and games. Paper went onto the floor and bows to my mother for her to stick on her robe and to use for next year's presents.

After the last present was unwrapped, we sat among piles of toys, clothes, boxes and wrapping paper, smiling and laughing, reexamining what we'd been given. Then we'd search the house for any big ticket items like bikes or Playschool houses. After that, it was to the family room where our stockings hung over the fireplace, stuffed with packages, candy and a few coins, too. We all had the same one, green felt with fake fur puffing at the top. My mother made them to be the same, and, to make them different, we covered them with pins from places we'd been, school awards and pictures of things we enjoyed. My favorites are my "Still Scrambling" Randall Cunningham pin and one from a trip to Disneyworld.

After we put those presents back in the stocking -- taking care to remove the candy so the chocolate didn't melt -- we would tidy up the living room and situation our gifts under the tree. Then it was time to put on our Christmas best for breakfast with Grandmom and Grandpop, a feast of bacon, eggs, hot cakes and french fries. The table was noisy and crowded. Elbows bumped, food reached over and, sometimes, something spilled, but that was okay. After all, it's Christmas.

But things change, times change. The kids are adults now. Grandmom and Grandpop moved to Florida. Mom and Dad split up. Now we have breakfast with one and dinner with the other. We even have two sets of stockings. There will come a time soon when this tenuous holiday schedule will crumble. We'll start expanding and creating our own families and traditions. This past year might have been the last where we'd all been together, and, someday soon, I might not even see my siblings on Christmas day.

We used to complain about the time it took my father to set up the lights, but now I promise that I would have waited more, just so that we have those memories to keep, even if we don't have the holiday to share for much longer.

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Tiffani Hill-Patterson said...


Your column reminds me a lot of my childhood with my brother. I miss those days. I haven't seen him on Christmas in about 3 years. He has his own family, and we live in different states so we get together after the holiday. Although my parents are still together, my husband's are divorced and remarried, and we rarely see his family on the holidays.

Anyway, great piece. Thanks for sharing.


Cavalier92 said...

Well you started my Christmas Eve with some tears, but it's a good thing. Thanks for helping me remember how important this all is!!

DolphinMets said...


Great story!!

Thank you for your blog! It keeps you thinking of summer at the shore all year!

Have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year and keep up the GREAT work!

Mike S.

Ann Delaney said...

Great story- brings back memories of my father setting up the blinding lights for his classic 8mm movies! He took this very seriously. My 3 sisters and I wore matching pajamas and had to line up in front of the cardboard fireplace before gifts were opened :) Merry, merry!

Sandi Scionti said...

Dear Jen,
I live in Tampa, Florida and my husband is a Tampa University alumni, therefore we receive the UT Journal wherein I just read your article on Amy Hill Hearth. What really caught my attention was the sidebar about your book on the Jersey Shore, which is where I spent most of my childhood. My book, Greeting From Stone Harbor, was published in 1999, and recounts memories of growing up on a barrier island in the 1950s. The book was sold in gift shops in the town, however the publisher did not reprint after the books were sold out. I am now working on a second edition of the book which will include additional information about the town and some of my mother's memories.
I very much enjoyed your Christmas recollections, which reminded me of some of the Christmas memories from my book.