Every year, a few days before Christmas, my family walks into a superstore and with Mom and Dad’s help, our children scatter and purchase pre-budgeted presents for one another. They bob and weave like spies to avoid detection, hiding in clothing displays or playfully posing as mannequins.
We meet up front when we’re done, purchase and triple bag the inexpensive gifts, then head home. It’s a highlight of the Christmas season that dates back more than 30 years to my own childhood with my own siblings.
Other traditions have persevered, as well. Just as in my childhood, all presents are opened one at a time as we go in a circle around the room. Candy and fudge fill the countertops and it’s the only day of the year the kids don’t have to ask before diving in at any point throughout the day. The stomachaches are tradition, too.
These might be a little unusual, but they belong to us, no different than prized photos or inherited heirlooms. Over time, these quirky customs, no matter the time of year, become the vibrant colors of our family memories.
How about you?
Meet the Armstrongs of Strasburg, Va. This family says Christmas isn’t complete without a trip to 7-Eleven for a soda and a chat with the employees. The tradition began 14 years ago in Washington state when a family friend had to work and the Armstrongs visited to cheer her up with cookies and a smile. Even now with the children grown and a grandchild on the way, the tradition will play an important part of their 2013 Christmas Day.
The Shumways of Snowflake, Ariz., love Christmas movies. Their favorite is the classic “A Christmas Story,” and Dec. 24 isn’t complete until the family has enjoyed their traditional dinner at a Chinese restaurant. The family has moved through the years and the exact restaurant has never been important, as long as the family is gathered around a table with rice, noodles and a lot of laughter.
The Becks of Omaha, Neb., put a spin on a more common tradition. Like many, each member of the family receives new pajamas on Christmas Eve. But the Becks don’t just put on their new PJs and hit the hay; they hop in the car and drive around town to admire the Christmas lights. Even Mom and Dad don the new duds in public.
When living in Texas and Iowa, Laura Leigh woke at 1 a.m. to open presents with her family. One year, her mother told the children to go back to bed because their grandmother would be visiting later that morning and they needed to wait for her. “Just then the phone rang,” Leigh said. “It was Grandma wondering where we were! So we all piled in the car and went the few blocks to Grandma's house to give her an official escort.” Thanks to a spunky grandmother, the 1 a.m. tradition lived on.
Dennis George of Woodstock, Va., likes burning the midnight oil, too. For more than two decades, George and a few friends and family call people after midnight to be the first to wish them a Merry Christmas. What started once after they’d finally finished putting toys together under the tree has turned into a tradition. “I have one aunt and cousin in particular that looks forward to it every year. When the phone rings, she doesn't even say ‘hello’ any more. She says, ‘Merry Christmas!’ ”
When Jennifer Cox of Mountain Home, Idaho, was a little girl, her mother burned her hands badly with bacon grease just days before Christmas. “Both hands were wrapped in bandages and she couldn't do much,” Cox said. “Dad had to cook dinner and made homemade pizza instead of the big meal. It was so easy and relaxed that we repeated it the next year. Twenty years later, my twin brother and I still carry on the tradition in our own families.”
For Elizabeth Blight and her family in Berryville, Va., this tradition might not be decades old, but what it lacks in longevity, it makes up for with wackiness. Several years ago, an uncle was dating a woman with a son named Timmy and the generous Blights purchased a few Christmas gifts for him. “Unfortunately, Timmy wasn't at the family get-together,” Blight said. Then, at the end of the evening, the family forgot to send the presents home with the boy’s mother and the gifts ended up in the Blight’s decoration storage. So, the next year, the boxes went back under the tree. By then, however, the couple had broken up and Timmy was long gone.
Undaunted, the family has put the presents back under the tree each year waiting for a Timmy Christmas miracle, imagining one day he would show up at their door in search of his presents from years ago. “In 2013,” Blight said, “we finally got our Timmy Christmas miracle, though it was not in the way we thought it would be! One of our family friends had a premature baby a couple weeks before Christmas and he is a miracle baby. His name? Timmy.”
Maybe I should ask my children what they will recall about their childhood Christmases. When they’re 22, 32 or my age — 42 — will they remember the gift they got? The gift they didn’t? Or will they remember slashing and dashing through Target like top-secret CIA agents, hiding gifts in shopping carts and eating Cherry Cordials for breakfast on Christmas morning?
I suppose I know the answer — my stomach hurts already.
Jason Wright is a New York Times bestselling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars" and his latest, "The 96th Annual Apple Valley Barn Dance." He can be reached at email@example.com, applevalleybarndance.com or jasonfwright.com