Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Best Time to See the Christmas Lights at Temple Square

The LDS Church's Temple Square in Salt Lake City is always an interesting place to visit. But around Christmastime each year it becomes a major holiday destination as its trees are lit up with hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of lights. The effect is magical.

In addition to the lights, there is always a special Christmas display in the North Visitor Center and a life size presentation of the Nativity story on the lawn between that building and the historic tabernacle. The Nativity story plays over and over with lights shining on staged scenes and speakers conveying professional narration along with music by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

A beautiful Nativity scene graces the center of the reflecting pond. Small clear balls with lights that appear to be lit candles float on the surface of the pond. A walkway is lined with Christmas lanterns. Nativity sets reflecting various cultures grace a number of spots.

Temple Square at night during Christmastime is indeed magical. There are only a couple of drawbacks: parking and crowds. The lights and displays make the place such a popular holiday destination that the press of people on any night of the holiday season can make the experience difficult. This is particularly so for families with young children and strollers, as well as for anyone with mobility challenges.

My wife and I visited Temple Square one evening about a week and a half ago only because we were attending an event at the Salt Lake Temple that concluded in the early evening. As we walked around sans kids, I was reminded of the times we had navigated the crowds with our kids and recalled the difficulty of maneuvering a stroller while also managing young children on foot that could easily get lost in the crowd.

We have found that the best time to visit Temple Square to see the Christmas lights and displays is AFTER Christmas. The lights stay lit each night until just after New Year. (The website says that they will only be lit through December 31 this year.) But once Christmas is over the crowds diminish, as do the panhandlers and anti-Mormons that line the sidewalks around Temple Square.

I would say that the experience of strolling around Temple Square after Christmas beats being pushed along in a stream of people before Christmas. It would seem that most people that want to see the lights feel as if it absolutely must happen before Christmas, perhaps to help them get into the spirit of the season. But in my mind, the relaxed pace and easier parking after Christmas more than make up for anything lost by missing the lights before Christmas.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Family History

We got a video camera when our first son was born so that we could capture our family's special moments on video. We've had five iterations of video cameras since then plus a couple of phones that actually produce somewhat decent video.

We currently have about three dozen DVD discs of family movies that include many years of our Christmas celebrations. One Christmas morning is missing because I accidentally deleted critical files on a then-new camcorder. But for the most part we can watch our family age as we look at videos of Christmas over the years, allowing us to recall events from a lengthening chain of Christmases.

Some elements are perpetually the same. We do our annual Christmas Eve dinner on the floor. It started out being somewhat reminiscent of the type of dining that occurred in Israel around the time of the first Christmas. But over the years we have gradually dropped the less favored and less convenient items for items with broader appeal. We seriously parted from Jewish tradition the year our Christmas Eve feast included slices of ham.

Then there's the Christmas morning gift opening event. What started out as a desire of young parents has firmed into an iron clad tradition. Following breakfast the kids first get their Christmas stockings and check out the stocking stuffers. Then we start handing out gifts from under the tree, trying to time the opening in such a way that I can capture the moment of delight (or disappointment) with each gift.

A few years ago we headed into the Christmas holidays with no snow on the ground. But then it snowed during the night so that we awakened to an incredibly beautiful snowy day with clear skies. After opening gifts we went to the nearby park where we slid down the slopes on toboggans and tubes, making our mark in the fresh snow. I caught elements of this on video. We returned to the house for hot chocolate, movies, games, and playing with gifts. It seemed like the perfect traditional Christmas.

My appearances in our family movies are rare and rare, since I am usually running the camera. However, my commentary can often be heard.A couple of evenings ago my daughter was watching some of our Christmas videos. It was fun to see the kids when they were much younger. But it was a bit shocking to see myself in those videos. It provided for a comparison with the present, allowing me to realize how much I have aged.

Being a regular journal writer, I have also captured our annual Christmas celebrations in writing too. There was the year that our two oldest were toddlers and were both quite ill. My wife took our oldest to the emergency room late on Christmas night, only to be told that his very high fever was the result of a virus and that the only option was to let the virus work its course.

I was off work between Christmas and New Year that season, but my wife wasn't. I spent the holidays mostly caring for my sick little boys, who had little desire to do much other than to watch videos and be held. Fortunately, they both rebounded about the time I had to return to work.

My brothers and I used to bring our families to my parents' home on Christmas Eve, where we would eat, share gifts, and have the grandchildren perform a talent show and the nativity story. That eventually became too difficult to pull off as families aged and started spreading out.

There was the Christmas when it snowed, and snowed, and snowed. I spent much of the day doing snow removal at our place, for various neighbors, and at the church. Then there was last year, when we celebrated together for what we figured would be our last time as a family for a while, anticipating boys leaving on missions.

I need to figure out which services I'm going to use to move our family movies and my journals out to the cloud. Although I have backup copies of these files (even stored off site), they are not as accessible or as secure as they could be on the cloud. Besides, all electronic data is subject to obsolescence. I have already undertaken major projects to upgrade my journals and videos to current formats. But even those are aging. When will DVDs be little more than anachronisms of a bygone era?

We will soon be taking video and still shots of our annual family Christmas celebration once again. I will then work to preserve these videos for future use. Hopefully my kids will always have the opportunity of looking back on events from their formative years to help remind themselves of the ties that bind us together even stronger than the bonds of life itself.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Music of Christmas: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I have always genuinely loved Christmas music; although, my tastes have varied over time. As a small child I was quite fond of Up On the Housetop. Nowadays I much more enjoy the likes of the Hallelujah Chorus.

Not that I didn't like sacred Christmas music as a child. Once when I was young I watched big fluffy snowflakes falling on our already snowy neighborhood out the front window of our home just days before Christmas. I went out into the carport where I could look at neighbors' Christmas lights through the falling snow without the glare of indoor lights reflecting off the window. I suddenly found myself so filled with the Christmas spirit that I burst out and sang O Holy Night at the top of my lungs.

Christmas music comes in sacred, secular, and crossover varieties.There are distinct subsets or themes revolving mainly around Jesus Christ, Santa Claus, charity, winter, and winter romance. Over my lifetime American culture has developed an increasingly tortured relationship with Christmas music. Americans seem to love Christmas music, but listen to it under a cloud of possibly offending some.

Still, some Christmas songs seem to endure quite well. But some of them honestly mystify me. When I was a kid we had a 33⅓ rpm vinyl LP that included a rendition of The Little Drummer Boy. I kind of like the music for this song. But maybe I'm too cerebral about it, because the lyrics make no sense to me.

As the father of five children I wonder what sane adult would allow some kid to pound on a drum to soothe a baby. Is Mary saying, "Yeah, the cattle and chickens aren't making enough noise. Why don't you see if you can permanently damage the baby's hearing by whacking your drum? That's sure to help the child sleep. Who the heck needs a silent night anyway?"

And while Jingle Bells has an incredibly catchy tune and rhythm, how in the world did it become a Christmas song? How many people can even sing more than the first verse of the song anyway? Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow! is a fun song, but why is it considered a Christmas song? Ditto with other romance based songs such as Sleigh Ride and Winter Wonderland. None of these songs even refer to Christmas in any form.

Unlike various religious scolds, I have no problem with most secular Christmas music, as long as it's not used in a worship service. While I think that devotion should play a central role in my Christmas celebration, I don't think that the Lord is offended with an appropriate amount of celebration that is not strictly religious. So I enjoy both religious and secular Christmas music.

I like both traditional and modern arrangements of various Christmas songs. Up to a point. Most broadcasts seem to tightly focus on a tiny subset of the ample repertoire of available songs. While there are multiple versions of these songs performed by various artists, it sometimes feels like overload.

It's easy for overload to happen when the Christmas season lasts 2-3 months. Christmas is magical when it is special. The longer the season is drawn out, the less special it becomes. Instead of the music lending to a magical feeling, it becomes annoying.

Speaking of annoying, there are a few Christmas songs that fit squarely into that category for me. I still recall the moment nearly 30 years ago when Jingle Bell Rock became permanently annoying to me. While I particularly can't stand the version where the male singer sounds like a goat when he sings, "Jingle around the clo-o-o-o-o-ock," I detest pretty much any rendition of the song. Feliz Navidad sits at the bottom of this bucket for me too.

On Monday night our family will gather for our traditional Christmas Eve dinner. Later on, after the sibling gift exchange, we will prepare to pray and read the Christmas story from the scriptures by singing a religious Christmas carol. I'm not sure what we'll sing. Whoever is the voice for our family prayer on the 23rd gets to pick the song on the 24th. But I am sure that I will enjoy singing the song.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Missionary Christmas

I recently pulled out my missionary journal from the way-way-back device (aka bookshelf) and reread my entries from the days surrounding the two Christmases I spent in Norway. It brought back some pleasant memories.

Both years I was in Norway I was transferred to a new city just days before Christmas. Each year I left behind those I knew and went to a new situation. The first year I went to a companion and church members I had never met. The second year I went to a companion that was already a good friend. The city had three other sets of missionaries. I knew all of them. I knew some of the members. But in both cases, people made Christmas very enjoyable for me, despite being far from home.

I arrived in Hamar a few days before Christmas my first year in Norway, replacing my MTC companion, who had been there the whole time we had been in Norway. (Hamar was my fourth city.) Church members immediately welcomed me. They were very hospitable to us during the holiday season.

One middle age couple whose children were all adults lived quite comfortably by Norwegian standards invited us to their Christmas Eve celebration. Gifts were opened that night per the national tradition. We had a marvelous feast and enjoyed the family's gift giving. We also opened gifts that our families had sent from home. Thanks to the efficiency of the postal system between the U.S. and Norway, my gifts had arrived weeks earlier.

We spent Christmas day with a couple of other families. One family allowed me to use their phone to call home. (It was a collect call, so it cost them nothing.) I can't remember why my companion had to call his family on the 26th, but this family made arrangements for us to visit them for that event.

When we showed up on the 26th, the lady of the house talked to us through the front door and asked us to go around back. When we got to the back of the house, she opened a window and invited us to climb into the house through the window.

Although the 26th is a national holiday along with the 25th, the man of the house had to make a trip to a town about an hour away that morning. The deadbolt locks on their doors were keyed on both sides. When the husband had locked the house and left that morning, he had inadvertently taken both sets of house keys with him.

I thought that it must have been quite a sight for the neighbors to see two young Mormon missionaries climbing through the back window of the house at the wife's bidding while the husband was away. Thankfully, the husband returned home while my companion was still on the phone. He said that he was surprised when he found the second set of keys in his coat pocket upon arrival at his destination.

My second Christmas in Norway was spent in Trondheim, one of Norway's significant cities. I arrived on the 23rd, a date many Norwegians refer to as Little Christmas Eve. Being immediately thrust into a leadership position meant that my companion and I spent all that day shuttling missionaries that were transferring to and from the city and getting the new missionaries settled.

On Christmas Eve we were invited to visit a couple of families, where we enjoyed food and gifting. At midnight we took our entire missionary zone to the midnight mass at the Nidaros Cathedral, where most Norwegian royal coronations have taken place for nearly a millennium. (Since 1908 only the royal benediction has occurred in the cathedral. The actual coronation takes place in Oslo, at the seat of government.) It was an interesting experience.

We spent Christmas day making more visits to church members and investigators, doing a bit of impromptu snow sliding with some kids on a slope near an apartment complex, and playing Monopoly. When we visited "The Captain," a very gracious brother who was a retired cruise ship captain, he allowed us to call home using his phone and he served us elegant treats. I only realized after popping one luxurious dipped chocolate into my mouth that it was filled with cherry liquor. My companion laughed when he saw the surprised look on my face.

I'm not sure what it's like nowadays, but Norway's Christmas celebrations back then differed from those in the U.S. in that decorations usually didn't appear until just before Christmas. Work, school, and church Christmas parties usually occurred in the weeks following the holidays, rather than prior to the holidays. People leave their decorations up until mid or late January (or sometimes even later).

In the U.S. we are inundated with Christmas as stores clear Halloween candy from the shelves. It seems like radio stations that once played 100 hours of Christmas music now play 100 days of Christmas music. Stores play 20 variations of the same 12 Christmas songs for weeks until we are all sick of it. But once December 25th passes, Christmas is over. Decorations go down. Christmas music stops. It's done.

Each year when I was in Norway, we eventually gathered at the church for a congregational Christmas party. Per Norwegian tradition, we joined hands in circles around the Christmas tree. A small circle (usually of young children) circled the tree tightly. That group was surrounded by a larger circle, and so forth until all attendees were in a circle. Every other circle rotated the opposite direction from the next circle as we sang Christmas carols.

I recall with fondness the two Christmases I spent as a missionary in Norway. I hope that my son that is serving a mission in a foreign country will encounter hospitality, generosity, and enjoyable local traditions this Christmas, much as was the case for me years ago.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Christmas Breakfast Cereal

I have a handful of extremely vivid memories from my early childhood. I still remember Christmas morning when I was three years old. It was still dark outside when we got up. The only lights in the living room emanated from the Christmas tree. I walked closer to the tree through what appeared to be aisle ways of massive wrapped boxes. It doesn't take very big or very many boxes to look that way to a three-year-old.

I got a Wonder Horse for Christmas that year.
I am told that all I did on Christmas day was to cycle through eating treats and bouncing on the horse. Apparently this cycle continued until I managed to make myself sick by evening. I finally threw up and then went to bed queasy.

Mom still claims that I never rode that horse again, but she's wrong. The horse was relegated to the basement. My brothers and I actually did ride that horse quite a bit down there. But we also drew on it with markers and poked darts from the dart board into its vinyl rump. It stayed in the basement until my younger brother was too big to ride it.

Although I don't clearly remember getting sick that Christmas, I think that one of my family's current traditions may have stemmed from my subconscious memory of that event coupled with my deep memory of another Christmas morning.

When I was a kid the family practice was to get up early on Christmas morning (not one second before 6:00 am by parental decree) and open gifts. Of course, there was always an abundance of treats available, including the treats in our boots. We didn't have Christmas stockings. Mom had made us each a Christmas boot that fit a #10 can, which could hold far more goodies than your average stocking.

With all of the gift opening, playing, and eating of treats, we never got around to breakfast until 10 am or later. By then we'd have filled our tummies with delectables that were intended to be eaten only in small amounts, so we weren't hungry. Eventually the consequential effects of indigestion would set in.

Then one Christmas morning the doorbell rang just as we were beginning to open our gifts. Mind you, this was about 6:15 am. On the doorstep were the Rasmussens, a cheery empty nester couple that lived around the corner. They refused our invitation to come in, but they presented us with a plate of hot scones along with a container of honey butter. Then they were on their way.

The scones were delicious. We ate them and then continued with our Christmas morning activities. We later learned that when the Rasmussens realized that none of their children or grandchildren were going to be close enough to visit that year, they wanted to find a fun way to celebrate Christmas morning.

They decided to go to bed extra early and then get up extra early to prepare scones. They made a large batch of scone dough and got hot grease ready. Then the moment they saw a neighbor's lights come on they would prepare enough fresh scones for that family, quickly deliver them, and then return to their work. It was hard work, but it made Christmas morning fun for them and for many others.

Mom later noticed that we didn't delve into the candy and treats much that morning, so there was less indigestion (and gas) among the family members. Ruminating upon this as I became a young adult, I vowed that when I had my own family I would make everyone eat breakfast before opening gifts. When my wife and I began to have children, she agreed with me on this. The question, however, was how to get excited young children to focus on eating breakfast when a trove of Christmas presents beckoned from the next room.

Together we eventually formulated a plan. We would allow each child to select a box of their favorite breakfast cereal for Christmas morning. The whole box would be theirs until it was exhausted. We even wrote the child's name on the box with marker to prevent others from inadvertently eating from it.

This has worked wonderfully. Our kids usually only get breakfast cereal from the biggest bags of cereal that they sell at the local markets. Boxed cereal is more pricey and has certainly always been a novelty in our home. The funny thing about this is that even our young adult children still look forward to this family tradition each Christmas. They get the cereal they want, everyone has breakfast before digging into gifts and treats, and everyone is much happier.

At least, it works to a certain extent. A couple of years ago our oldest son requested Berry Berry Kix, a cereal he relished from his childhood. We soon found why we hadn't seen it for a while. None of the stores in town carried it any longer. It was available online, but only in quantities of four boxes. It was too close to Christmas to get the cereal without paying exorbitant shipping, so he opted for something else.

Then last Christmas we got our son four boxes of Berry Berry Kix. He quickly realized on Christmas morning that either the recipe had changed, his palate had changed, the cereal tasted a lot better in his memory than it did in real life, or some combination of these factors. Sometimes foods we haven't eaten for years don't live up to our memories because many elements besides the actual taste are involved, and some of those things can't be recreated. It took months before all four boxes of the cereal were gone.

I have tried making scones on Christmas. But no matter how many recipes I read or how many videos I watch on the subject, I just can't seem to make my scones turn out very well. Besides, there is no way to recapture the magic of the moment that the Rasmussens delivered hot scones to our door that Christmas morning long ago. Still, I suppose that if I do something to bring joy to someone's Christmas celebration, it might help spark their own Christmas traditions long after I'm gone.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Christmas Gift Spies

When I was nine years old I discovered that parents hate it when their kids get out of school too many days before Christmas. The children in our family at that time were all old enough to be hep to the Santa thing. (My caboose brother was born later.) So Mom started putting gifts under the Christmas tree a few days before Christmas.

Mom kept a pretty vigilant eye on the gifts, so we couldn't get too close. But then Christmas Eve arrived. They had let us out of school early on the 23rd. Then we had a whole day at home on the 24th. A whole day to think about the following morning when we would—as the narrator of A Christmas Story puts it—plunge "into the cornucopia quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice."

We tried doing other things—playing games, watching TV, eating treats, etc—but the pile of brightly wrapped gifts that grew every time Mom came out of the bedroom with a few more boxes in hand drew us with an impossibly irresistible force. Regardless of the distractions we attempted, that treasure trove was right there tantalizingly out in the open, mocking our childish passions with its close yet inaccessible presence.

Then about midday Mom decided that she had to run some errands. We correctly assumed that she was about to pick up a few last minute items for us, since she was adamant that we all remain behind. I'm also sure that she wanted her trip to be as quick as possible. She knew that each additional child would hamper that goal. Besides, my oldest sibling was 12½, plenty old enough to watch the rest of us, none of whom were tiny.

No sooner had the taillights of the car disappeared around the corner than we began inspecting the wrapped hoard under the tree. We looked to see to whom each package was addressed. We touched none of them at first. Then we ever so carefully began picking up parcels to feel their weight and to gently shake them. We paid careful attention to each gift's location and orientation so that it could be replaced just as Mom had left it. We didn't want her to know of our surreptitious gift reconnaissance.

My oldest brother played the part of the executive. He was always the chief executive when our parents weren't around—not simply due to his age, but due to his nature. Today he is the chief operating officer of a vibrant multinational firm. He kept our foray under control.

At least, he did so until the second oldest—who has always been the most adventurous among us—decided that he would carefully open the end of one of his gifts and then reseal the package. We posted a sentinel at the front window to watch for Mom. My brother was able to see one of the minor gifts he was to receive. Then, as promised, he cautiously fixed the wrapping and returned the box to its original location.

Having proved that this could be done, my executive brother opted for a turn at it. He too discovered what one of his minor gifts would be and returned the gift to its place. Of course, the remainder of us clamored for the same privilege. But the executive said that we were insufficiently skilled to accomplish the task without leaving evidence that would alert Mom to our transgression. After a fair amount of pestering, he finally gave in.

I selected a box covered with thick shiny foil wrapping paper. I still remember that it had a silver background covered with large colored dots, most of which were purple. The paper was so tough that I easily pealed the tape back without scarring the wrapping. I was thrilled to see a Kenner SSP car.

My younger brother picked a box that was kind of heavy for its size. He opened it to discovered an HO scale train engine. He had so wanted a real HO railway set. But it was so expensive that Mom and Dad could afford to get him little else. So Mom had opened the set and packed each train car separately. The power converter was in its own package. The tracks were split into several packages. But as soon as my brother saw the engine, he pretty much knew what was in most of the other gifts addressed to him.

Unfortunately, the box my brother picked was wrapped in very delicate paper. Unlike the thick foil wrapping on my box, the paper had easily torn. What's more is that the only piece of that style of paper remaining on the roll was far too small to cover the gift, so it could not be wrapped anew.

My oldest brother was trying to help my younger brother re-wrap the box in its now tattered wrapping when the posted sentinel saw a car turn the corner that looked like Mom's car. With no time to spare, they slapped the wrapping together, trying to cover the unsightly rips with tape. They re-attached the bow and flung the box under the tree in nearly the right spot under another box.

Fortunately, the car was not ours. But Mom returned a few minutes later anyway. By then we appeared to be casually lounging in front of the TV. Inside we were reeling from a sense of impending doom. Mom returned to her room for more wrapping. Surely she would discover the pre-opened gift upon delivering more gifts to the base of the tree. But she didn't. We had gotten away with it!

A couple of hours and a couple of trips to the tree later, Mom moved some gifts to make room for a few more boxes. Mom's wrapping jobs were always meticulous and gorgeous. Upon moving one gift, Mom's eagle eye suddenly caught sight of a box that was very un-meticulously wrapped.

Even as Mom hoisted the formerly gorgeously wrapped toy train engine, I thought we might still get away with our spying. And even if we didn't, my younger brother—thanks to a pact among brothers—would throw himself on the grenade, as it were, and proclaim that he alone was responsible for gift espionage.

It didn't work out that way. When we did our best to do the three monkeys routine when Mom asked what us older brothers had been doing while our younger brother opened the gift. Mom must have learned her interrogation techniques from Sgt. Joe Friday, because it didn't take her long to get to the bottom of what had happened.

We were in serious trouble. By the time the whole thing unraveled we knew it wouldn't be long before Dad would get home from work. It would be all over then.

Thankfully, our punishment was rather light. Dad didn't want anger or harshness hanging over our Christmas Eve celebration. And it was hard for my parents to be angry the following morning. They seemed to get nearly as much delight out of watching us open our gifts as we got from opening them ourselves. My younger brother was still thrilled with each box he opened.

The following Christmas I was surprised to see Mom again putting gifts under the tree a few days before Christmas. Maybe she thought we'd learned our lesson. She was only partially right. We never again tried to prematurely open any gifts. But we did carefully scope out the packages when we were unsupervised.

We were surprised to discover that the gift tags showed only symbols and no names. That way our parents were able to keep us from knowing which package belonged to which child until the operative moment. It would have been unconscionable—and probably punishable by pummeling—to open another brother's gift. So nobody tried opening any gifts ahead of time.

Just as Dad was about to explain the code on Christmas morning, my analytic executive brother piped up and asked if he could guess. Amused, Dad told him to go ahead. My brother asserted that the circle was for child #1, the cross for #2, the triangle for #3, and the square for #4.

My parents looked at each other in stunned amazement, and then asked, "How did you know that?" "Simple," my brother explained. "A circle has only one line so it is for #1. The cross has two lines so it is for #2. A triangle has three lines so it is for #3 and a square has four lines so it is for #4." My surprised Dad said, "We didn't even think about that. We picked these symbols randomly." My brother surmised that they must have subconsciously recognized the correlating pattern.

It may be due to my childhood gift espionage that my wife and I wait until just before retiring on Christmas Eve to put gifts under the tree. But we keep no secrets about where the gifts are stored until then. Our kids know that they can go there if they really want to. It's up to them whether they want to be surprised on Christmas morning or not.

I'm not sure whether our kids spy or not. They certainly don't do so while we're around. Even if they spy, it seems that they still manage to quite enjoy opening gifts on Christmas morning. And maybe gift spying is just another fun part of our family's Christmas traditions. After all, it still makes me smile.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

We Heart Christmas: A Marriage Parable

Years ago my wife and I got engaged in November. We spent a lot of time together over the next few weeks. With Christmas approaching we dropped by a shop and selected our first Christmas ornament as a couple; a stuffed cloth heart adornment that reminded us of our love for each other. Since each of us was living with family at that time, neither of us had our own Christmas tree on which to hang the ornament. But we bought it anyway.

A year later as we prepared to celebrate our first Christmas as a married couple we bought a cheap little artificial Christmas tree at K-Mart. It looked like it was constructed of green bottle cleaners. We put it atop a box on the indoor balcony of our little house so that it could be seen from the main floor. We strung some cheap lights and hung a few very cheap ornaments on it. We also hung our 'engagement' ornament from the previous year.

During that season we happened to see another heart shaped ornament in a shop. It didn't cost much. We bought it, brought it home, and put it on our ugly little tree. Thus was a born a tradition that we have followed every year since.

Each year we seek out a Christmas ornament that is either heart shaped or that features a heart. Before putting it on our tree we attach a piece of tape with the year written on it so that we can keep track of when we got each ornament.

We now have quite a menagerie of heart ornaments. Some are elegant; others aren't. Some are large and some are small. We have a large Mickey Mouse ornament from the year we went to Disney World. A string of four small wooden Teddy bears with hearts marks our fourth Christmas together. One of my favorites is a heart made of Hadeland crystal from Norway, where I served as a missionary. Another hand carved heart looks very Scandinavian.

One of the kids' favorite heart ornaments features two mice snuggling atop an old fashioned camera. The center of the flash pan has an opening that fits over a Christmas tree light. Our ornament for 2001 is a metal heart painted to look like an American Flag in remembrance of the patriotic response to 9/11. One two-heart ornament features painted words that say, "The best things in life ... aren't things."

There are many other heart ornaments, including a ceramic heart shape that is cleverly fashioned to look like a Santa face, a heart shaped picture frame featuring a photo of my wife and me from that year, an incredibly cute miniature xylophone, and an angel that is also a bell.

Each year we unwrap each heart ornament and reminisce as we put it on the tree. The appearance of certain ornaments always evokes a sense of delight. Then at the end of the season we carefully wrap each heart ornament in tissue paper and store them in containers until the following Christmas season.

I think our little tradition says something to our children and to each other about how we regard our marriage. It sort of reminds me of the April 2003 LDS general conference talk given by F. Burton Howard. Elder Howard related how his wife cherished and cared for the fine silverware set they began to accumulate upon marriage. He was enlisted in this care as well. His wife was so vigilant with the silver that he thought her to be "just a little bit eccentric." But he ultimately came to see that the silver was simply a metaphor for the conscientious way she approached their own marriage.

We long ago got rid of our bottle cleaner tree. Our current living room has a high ceiling but limited floor space. We very much enjoy our narrow 12' tall tree. Our heart ornaments are just a few of the many ornaments on the tree.

Although our tree is gorgeous, I must admit that as I was putting it together and decorating this year, I started looking forward to the time that we might just have a half tree that hangs on the wall, like my Mom does. I suppose that when we get to that stage we will put only our annual heart ornaments on the tree. I would love it if we someday had 50, 60, or more such ornaments.

Whether we reach that high number or not, I hope that each of my children forms Christmas traditions that demonstrate their devotion to their spouse and family. It would be nice to someday see grandchildren carrying on in their own families something like the tradition my wife and I started years ago when we embarked on our journey together.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Giving and Getting Great Christmas Gifts

Despite my mixed musings about Santa in my last post, I have a great fondness for the Christmas season. My parents made Christmas a fun time for our family when I was young. If they were seeking to instill lifelong pleasant memories, their efforts paid off well. We developed traditions that I still cherish, some of which my own family mimics today.

Our working class family had sufficient. But we were far from well off. Still, Mom and Dad worked hard to be generous to their kids at Christmas while trying not to kill the family budget. We always got some great gifts, even if we rarely got the major items we wanted.

Actually, the lack of getting big ticket items we wanted may have been one of the best Christmas gifts of all. I often came to cherish some of the smaller items I received. And unrewarded immediate desires were often better rewarded in the long run.

I still remember very much liking a flying whirligig toy I got. You'd shoot it into the air using a kind of a slingshot device (a rubber band tied to a stick). When it reached its apex, the thin plastic wings would unfold and the thing would gently helicopter to earth. You can buy these things nowadays for a buck.

Another great inexpensive toy I received as a kid was Sea Diver by Parker Brothers, which was a Cartesian diver. We regularly got board games (this was the b.v.g. era: before video games), Hot Wheels cars and tracks, action figures, various balls for sports, etc.

When we did actually get bigger ticket items, they were things that our parents were pretty sure would get used and would hold up well. One year they bought a used ping-pong table that got quite a bit of use for three decades. One brother got a Schwinn 5-speed Stingray bike one Christmas. (He really needed a new bike and it also covered his birthday.) I got a cassette tape player one year. That was a big deal back then.

But year after year my parents would fail to get the big ticket things we REALLY wanted. In retrospect, I can see that most of these things suffered from one or more significant deficiencies, such as being too expensive, too bulky (Where are you going to put it?), too flimsy, too narrow focused to hold our interest for long (fun for the first half hour, but not so much after that), and/or would have been jointly owned and would have caused never ending quarrels.

One year air hockey tables were all the rage. We begged and pleaded for one of these amazing devices. These things were new and expensive. Only high end folks could afford to be early adopters. Besides, even the expensive home use tables tended to break easily. They were pretty large too. I later noted long unused and/or broken air hockey tables consuming space in friends' homes. We received many wonderful gifts on Christmas morning that year. But an air hockey table was not among them.

My brother and I used Lego blocks to build a frame that resembled an air hockey table (complete with goals) on the floor of our bedroom. We put layer after layer of Mom's furniture wax on a rectangular spot on the hardwood floor of our bedroom, fervently buffing each layer until the surface was incredibly slick. Two small Tupperware containers became our mallets and a poker chip became our puck.

We played our makeshift air hockey game (sans air) on the floor of our bedroom day after day over the Christmas break. We kept playing it for the next couple of months. In fact, our fake air hockey court outlasted some of the fancy-shmancy air hockey tables that some of our friends got for Christmas. Only, when we lost interest and our Lego frame broke to the point that we didn't want to put it back together (sometime in late spring), we simply put the blocks back in our Lego bucket.

I sometimes find my wife and I going to great ends trying to get each child the perfect set of Christmas gifts. Occasionally I step back from the heat of shopping and remember the makeshift air hockey table from my childhood. While that was far from the only time we made our own fun without spending more money, I wonder what might have been lost had my parents insisted on getting us exactly what we wanted that Christmas. And then I relax a bit about Christmas shopping.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Being Santa

Today, December 6 is the traditional observation of the feast of St. Nicholas. The old Catholic saint has morphed over the years into the modern tradition of Santa Claus. He has gone from having his own religious feast to being a secular symbol of Christmas giving.

I have a photograph of me sitting in a friend's living room with his three wide-eyed children on my lap. Their wonder arose from me being dressed as Santa Claus. I had purchased a Santa outfit from a man that had professionally done the gig for many years.

This was not your standard cheap-o Santa outfit. The custom built suit was made of rich but sturdy red upholstery material trimmed in plush fake white fur. The knees and upper forelegs were reinforced to handle the extra wear that came from people sitting on Santa's lap. A quilted undersuit added the appearance of plumpness. The wig and beard were made of yak hair that could be washed and styled. These pieces were integrated so that the beard did not budge at all when a child pulled on it.

The outfit included a dandy cap, a large padded plush red bag full of cheap little trinkets and candy canes, black boots, white gloves, fake reading glasses, and a black leather bandoleer festooned with jingle bells.

Being a young adult at the time, I had to color my eyebrows and put on makeup that made me appear older. That took some work. I was somewhat chubby back then so that my face fit the Santa persona fairly well. (Nowadays I would just look too gaunt.)

At first I just did a few gigs for neighbors. Sometimes I dropped in on friends and neighbors unannounced. Some of them never realized who it was that was playing Santa. It was a lot of fun. People were always happy to see Santa. I went away from these encounters feeling warm and happy.

Eventually I started doing professional engagements, mainly for family, work, or church gatherings. These larger gatherings sometimes left me exhausted. The multi-layered suit was incredibly warm, and once the headset was in place it was difficult (almost impossible) to drink or eat. It was easy to get dehydrated and overheated.

Despite the fun of playing Santa, some engagements left me far more fatigued than should have been the case. After a few years I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Most people with MS are susceptible to easily overheating and I am no exception. It can result in a serious bout of fatigue that doesn't just go away after cooling down.

I eventually mostly gave up playing Santa for health reasons, although, I did occasionally do smaller engagements. I was able to hide my preparations from my children when they were small. But the older kids eventually found out. I only ever played Santa for my own kids on one occasion. Eventually I gave the entire outfit to a friend whom I thought could better use the outfit.

Over the years I developed mixed feelings about our modern day Santa tradition. Although scholars are uncertain as to whether Nikolaos of Myra ever existed, the legend of St. Nicholas tells of a wealthy man that devoted his life to God, and then spent his wealth secretly helping those in need, sometimes even delivering these gifts in the still of the night.

While our modern jolly Santa figure still delivers gifts at night, he has become a supernatural tall and obese elf that goes around in a sleigh propelled by flying reindeer, dumping more stuff on kids already suffused with so much stuff that they can't take care of it all. Being needy is not a requirement for his largess, and the necessity of being 'good' is so disassociated with his gifting as to beg the question of how 'bad' one must be to be skipped.

The ancient saint carefully watched for those in need and carefully helped out where he could. He did not go around advertising his charity. Today's Santa doesn't ask what is needed. He plops children on his lap and asks them what they want. Unlike the iconic Santa that told Ralphie he'd shoot his eye out, most Santas today promise to try to bring what the child wants.

Can you see the message that is being sent here? The ancient saint is a model of charitably and secretly helping those that are in deep need. He is all about selflessness. The modern Santa is all about promoting and feeding children's avarice. He is too often all about selfishness.

I'm not trying to trash fun holiday traditions. After all, many people find the joy of 'playing Santa' by secretly taking gifts to neighbors and people in need. (No red suit required.) This is the kind of thing children (and indeed each of us) need to learn. Getting is fun. But giving to others—especially those that can't reciprocate—brings joy, which is infinitely deeper than any fun you'll ever have.

Santa is still a fun part of our family's holiday observance, but we try to make Christmas far more meaningful than just the getting of gifts. When our children were young we told them that Santa only filled the stockings, as in Clement Moore's well known poem. The remaining gifts came from parents, grandparents, etc. Whenever one of our children asked if we were Santa, we'd level with them. We wanted our children to be able to trust us when it came to important matters, so we refused to lie to them about Santa.

Even my youngest child discovered the truth about Santa some time ago. Yet my children still enjoy putting out cookies and milk on Christmas Eve before going to bed. Knowing the truth hasn't destroyed the magic of the occasion.

Those three little boys that sat on my lap when I came to their house dressed as Santa are now all grown men, two of them with children of their own. More than a decade has passed since I last played Santa. I admit that our society's current interpretation of the Santa myth gives me some heartburn. But I still feel a warm glow inside when I think about the times I dropped by friends' homes as Santa.