Christmas morning came early when three small children roamed our house. They are teenagers now, so we’re happy if they wake up before lunch. When they were little they pounced on me at 4 a.m., jarring me from slumber. “Let’s open the gifts,” they’d holler.
Hey,” I’d say, trying to remember where I was, “It’s December 4th. Christmas is in twenty more sleeps.”
In those days, December was bright with Christmas programs and sugar cookies and wrapping paper. And, though our children are older now, they still love the traditions we began all those years ago. For them, Christmas ain’t Christmas without the eating of Mandarin oranges and Christmas porridge—a thick cinnamon mixture—courtesy of our Norwegian ancestors. Mom sets the table, and the kids set an extra plate for Jesus. “We should light 2000 candles for Him,” Rachael once said. But we settle for one. After breakfast we gather impatiently in the living room as I read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke.
As a boy I began looking forward to Christmas vacation in early September, about the time Mr. Kowalski started handing out those Math assignments. By the time December arrived, my parents were whispering more than usual and I was wondering what magical things they had in store. There was little in the way of extra money, so one of those magical traditions was the making of colorful candles we would sell door to door, hoping to earn enough to buy gifts. Not all of the traditions were welcome. Sometimes my parents enjoyed traveling to visit relatives and friends. They had a highly sophisticated method of choosing whom we would visit, which involved the laying of a map of Canada on the floor and the tossing of relatives’ pictures in the air. Whoever had their picture land closest to their hometown would receive a complimentary weekend visit from the Callaways. Sometimes we’d end up in Carstairs, Alberta, and sometimes in Loon Lake, Saskatchewan. As I recall, my father never used a map, he went on faith. I always felt like the Wise Men must have felt, heading off on those trips.
Dad’s personal goal was to drive at least 500 miles without stopping at any restrooms. Every few hours, we’d tell him that we had “to go,” but he would respond, “Eh? You say something? I can’t hear you past these earmuffs.” Every once in awhile Mom would offer to drive on the slippery roads, knowing that Dad would not let her unless he went blind in both eyes or suffered a level three heart attack. On these trips, my sister and I sat in the back seat pinching and poking each other, and to this day, when I think of Christmas miracles, I think of the fact that my parents did not lock us both in the trunk and abandon the car.
Apart from these short forays, I loved Christmas vacation. Though my parents had no manuals on creating great vacations, they seemed intuitively to know how. For one thing, they invested in others. Our turkey was surrounded not only by ravenous relatives, but by famished friends. Mom and Dad were always on the prowl for lonely looks in the church foyer, or neighbors who had no family within driving distance. To my parents, relationships were more important than a perfect meal or a tidy house. From the time our children were small we have done simple things to teach them to help others. This has included buying small bags of groceries for needy families. In fact, it has turned into a family adventure. We leave the groceries on someone’s doorstep, bang on the door and run. In eighteen years, we have never been caught. Unless our neighbors are reading this.
My parents also unplugged the TV. Oh sure, we had some great times together watching classic movies, but as much as possible we were encouraged to be outside in that pre-Nintendo era. Mom and Dad were often there with us, throwing snowballs or building forts. With no television we learned to ice skate and carol sing and come up with our own entertainment. Perhaps that’s why my brother offered me a shiny nickel one icy Christmas Eve. All I had to do was lick a metal doorknob (yes, I obliged).
Perhaps, best of all, we were taught to remember that it is not our birthday we celebrate at Christmas. Once while I was drooling my way through the toy section of the Sears catalog, my Mother put her arm about my shoulder and kindly reminded me that the gifts would be a little meager this year. Sensing my disappointment, she asked if I thought Jesus got much for His birthday. I had to think about it, but I said He got gold, frankincense, and myrrh, which I thought might have been a plastic toy of some sort or maybe a casserole. “I think we can afford that much,” she laughed. I’ve forgotten most of the presents she bought me, but I remember the gift of her laughter.
At times I miss being pounced on by small children. Since our teens are in their prime sleeping years now, we’ve talked about what to do this Christmas. Perhaps we’ll switch the opening of the gifts to Christmas Eve. Then again, maybe not. Last year I bought each of them a loud alarm clock. On Christmas Eve I’ll sneak into their rooms and set them for 4 a.m.