When I was very young, Santa Claus used to visit our house on Christmas Eve. Not in the middle of the night – leaving presents under the tree when we were nestled all snug in our beds – but early in the evening, when we were still up and wide awake.

I remember one year when we needed to make a quick trip to the grocery store on Christmas Eve. We kids were distraught, afraid we might miss Santa’s visit. Although my mom assured us that Santa would come back later if he arrived and we weren’t home, my sister and I – sitting by the windows in the back seat – kept our faces plastered against the glass, scouring the sky and watching for Santa’s sleigh in order to make sure he didn’t go by while we were gone. Not that there was anything we could have done about it if he did.

Santa had a voice that sounded a bit like my grandmother who lived across the street and up the hill from us. I remember asking my mom one year why Santa sounded like Grandma, and she explained that sometimes little children were frightened at the sight of Santa Claus, so he always made his voice sound like someone they knew and loved. That way they wouldn’t be afraid when they saw him.

As we grew older, our Christmas Eve tradition included Midnight Mass, although we had to be there more than an hour ahead of time, partly because the choir started singing well before midnight, and partly because the church got very crowded for Midnight Mass. If you didn’t want to sit in a folding chair in the back of the church, you had to get there early.

We lived three blocks away from church, so we always walked there and back. After Midnight Mass, we often had hot chocolate at home before going to bed. I don’t remember it ever keeping us awake, so I suspect caffeine hadn’t been invented yet. Instead, the warm, soothing drink took away the chill after we came in out of the cold.

When my husband and I were first married, we usually spent Christmas Eve at his grandmother’s house, enjoying tamales that had taken all week to prepare, and listening to stories about “the old days.” Stricter rules of fast and abstinence were in place then, and meat wasn’t allowed on Christmas Eve. The tantalizing aroma drove everyone crazy, because at that time, only the children were able to eat the tamales on Christmas Eve. Everyone else had to wait until after midnight.

Our holiday traditions changed somewhat after our own children were born, and changed again drastically when we lived in different parts of the country. Sometimes we “went home” to spend the holidays with our extended families, other times we “stayed home” and had a smaller celebration with just the four of us. “Home,” of course, referred to wherever we were at the time.

My kids are grown and gone now, and establishing their own holiday traditions. This year, they’ll be coming home to spend Christmas with us, and I’m looking forward to the celebration. I know they won’t always be able to be here for the holidays, and that makes it all the more special when they are.

We’ll celebrate Christmas Eve with tamales, gifts, and stories about “the old days,” and then get a good night’s sleep before getting up for Mass in the morning. The one we usually go to now is the earliest one in the light of day, not the one in the middle of the night.

Perhaps, late on Christmas Eve, I’ll make some hot chocolate, like my mom used to do. But first I’ll step outside so I can marvel at the beauty of this silent, sacred night. And so I can appreciate the warmth when I come in out of the cold.

As I stare up at the stars, I won’t expect to see Santa’s sleigh gliding across the sky. But I won’t be surprised if I sense the presence of angels, singing about this holy night and the baby who was born more than 2,000 years ago. I’ll cherish the memories and traditions that go back to Christmases long ago. And I’ll treasure the thought of new ones yet to come.

Until then, I wish you a Merry Christmas, a wonderful holiday season, and peace, success, and happiness as the New Year begins.

The column “Find Your Buried Treasure” appears weekly in the Chanhassen (MN) Villager. This column was published on December 19, 2013.
©Betty Liedtke, 2013

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