Thanksgiving week is the start of my favorite time of the year, and it always has been. It is the unofficial start of what is known as “the holidays” for my family and many other families too. These holidays are Thanksgiving Eve (November 24 this year), Thanksgiving Day (November 25 this year), Christmas Decorating Day (always the Sunday after Thanksgiving), the first Sunday of Advent (also usually the Sunday after Thanksgiving), Little Christmas/St. Nicholas Day (always December 6), Christmas Eve (always December 24), Christmas Day (always December 25), New Year’s Eve (always December 31), New Year’s Day (always January 1), and the Epiphany (always January 6). These are days filled with joy, excitement, and anticipation.
When I was a kid, I was always excited because Thanksgiving week meant a short week of school. We had two full days on Monday and Tuesday of that week, but they were usually light on work and included some kind of Thanksgiving play and an in class party on Tuesday. Wednesday was always a half day that included a Mass, so basically it was an easy week.
On Monday of that week, I’d come home from school, and the house was filled with enticing yet familiar aromas because my mother and grandmother were already prepping for Thursday, making some dishes in advance. If the weather wasn’t too cold, I’d change my clothes and go outside and play touch football with my friends as leaves fell all around us.
It was such an innocent time, such a wonderful moment to be a child. All of our parents were getting ready for the big holiday feast, and we were able to be carefree and enjoy the crisp autumn air and toss that football around. We would all be excited too because we knew that once Thanksgiving was celebrated, the inexorable march toward Christmas and the toys the jolly old elf would bring had begun. We would watch the Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV, and Mom said once you saw Santa at the end of the parade, you knew that he’d be going right up to the North Pole to start working on toys for Christmas.
Thanksgiving seemed like the best day because our family came to celebrate. I’d see my Mom’s father, my father’s parents (who lived with us), my aunts, uncles, and cousins. We had to extend the dining room table with other tables into the living room to accommodate everyone, and steaming bowls would be placed on the table filled mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes (with melted marshmallows on top), vegetables, stuffing (Mom made some stuffing inside the bird with raisins and other batches plain stuffing in the oven), and pitchers of gravy.
My Dad would carve the turkey in the kitchen, and platters of white and dark meat (including the drumsticks) would be brought to the table steaming. I don’t think I ever felt as hungry as I did on this day, and I don’t remember ever feeling as happy as I was to be with my family members.
Who knows what we said now? I just recall hearty laughter, bowls being passed, utensils clinking, and the feeling of contentment. Oh, though I never drank apple cider any other time of year, I remember washing all that good food down with it.
Christmas Decorating Day
Thanksgiving Sunday was day we decorated for Christmas. It was usually also the first Sunday of Advent, so we would open the first door on the Advent calendar and get a little sweet. Dad would bring the boxes of decorations up from the basement, Mom would put on Christmas music, and we enthusiastically helped our parents (hey, Santa was watching, right?).
After Thanksgiving I remember having leftovers for about a week. When I went back to school that Monday, I would no doubt have a turkey sandwich with cranberry sauce spread on both slices of bread.
Little Christmas/First Sunday of Advent
On December 6 we had an exchange of gifts for Little Christmas/St. Nicholas Day. Since my mother’s family came from Germany, it was a tradition to do this every year. While we knew about the tradition to put out shoes for St. Nick, Mom said he only did that in Germany, so instead we got a small toy and some candy. It was a sweet foreshadowing of what was to come later that month.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day
It was very difficult to concentrate in school during December. Once the Christmas tree went up in the classroom, I kept thinking about my Christmas letter (sent to Santa early in November to be certain he got it before being flooded by letters from other kids) and trying to be good because I knew Santa was watching me from the North Pole.
During the day on Christmas Eve, I would usually sleep late (because I knew I had to get up early the next morning to see my presents). Usually the sound of the vacuum cleaner would wake me up. My mother was getting the house ready, for we would be hosting the Christmas Eve party. We would get our gifts from the family that night, but the best ones would be left by Santa Claus while we dreamt of sugar plums dancing in our heads.
The joys of waking up on Christmas morning as a kid are unparalleled in my lifetime. The sense of wonder and excitement have never been the same for me. What awaited me under the tree? I almost wanted to not know right away, letting the possibilities dance around for a while. Also, my parents had to be up and awake (that was part of the deal). I was afraid to go into their room to wake them because I dreaded hearing, “Go back to bed!”
Eventually, my parents would get up, and then my sister and I ran to the living room to be greeted by wrapped boxes under the illuminated Christmas tree. I remember the pang I felt in my chest as I looked at the presents with the tags on them that read “To Victor, From Santa.” I can still picture us sitting on the floor, sending a shower of wrapping paper around the room.
Later that day after church, we would go to my aunt’s house for Christmas Day dinner, and the feelings of happiness and emotion were overwhelming.
New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day
A week later there was New Year’s Eve, usually spent at my aunt’s house. On this day we would all sleep over and stay up until midnight in order to see the ball drop and welcome the new year. Usually my sister, cousins, and I would watch TV upstairs while the adults had their party in the basement. One year we watched the film It! The Terror from Beyond Space, which scared the crap out of me, guaranteeing a sleepless first night of the new year.
New Year’s Day was usually spent watching football games and having lunch at my aunt’s house, before packing up our things for the drive home. Sometimes we had school the next day, so then we would come home and do our normal school night routine. If we were lucky to have another day off, we would get to play, have dinner, and then watch some TV before bed.
The last day of the “holidays” was the Epiphany. In school we would learn that this was the day that the Magi (Three Kings) came to visit Jesus. We didn’t do anything special on January 6 at home, but rather enjoyed the Christmas tree and decorations for the last time because the next day they would be gone by the time we came home from school. When we got older, we helped our parents take the decorations down. Those were always the saddest days of the year. Even now, I still feel that way.
Now that I have my own family, we pretty much keep the holidays mostly the same way I did as a child. We decorate the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and we take down the decorations after January 6. Everything is very different from those times for me. My grandparents, parents, and aunts and uncles are all gone. While I enjoyed those days so much, I sometimes wish at the time that I realized how precious they were. I would have tried to savor them more.
I have great memories that I share with my sister and cousins, and now we watch as our kids are growing up and experiencing what one day will be the memories that they will reflect upon. In this way I know that the traditions will continue through the generations, and each child will be fortunate to experience something similar to what I did growing up.
Thanksgiving through January 6 is a magical time, a season of peace when miracles seem possible. My hope for all who read this article is that you will have a wonderful holiday season. Happy Holidays to you all!