“Which Christmases do you remember the most?” was the dinner table question.
Now that’s an inquiry that could either rev up the conversation immediately or, conversely, trigger a period of silence as each person searches his or her memory.
Many of my Christmases have become lost in the forest of yesteryears, something that happens as birthdays begin to pile up. But there are those that remain firmly embedded in the movies in my mind, movies that are replayed time and time again.
How could I ever forget the morning when my first bicycle appeared, decorated with a bight red bow. It was the smallest two-wheeler on the market, but in the imagination of a child it was a mighty machine that I would ride to victory after victory.
Or the Christmas when I begin getting long pants instead of knickers as gifts, a material sign that the rites of passage had been affirmed.
Or that Christmas when my summertime and weekend grocery store earnings allowed me at last to buy Mom and Dad presents with my own money, cementing the feeling that it is more rewarding to give than to receive.
How could I ever forget that first Christmas without my father, one month and three days after he died at the age of 51? I was 16. I don’t remember much, or perhaps I choose not to remember. But the image of his empty chair that morning next to the brightly lit tree sporting old-fashioned twinkle lights, the place where he presided over the present-opening rituals, will always be with me.
Or the first Christmas my wife, Bea, and I celebrated in a small rental house in Atlanta. We were freshly married and didn’t have much money, so we shared small gifts and the dreams of the tomorrows to come.
Or when Santa arrived on the first Christmases for our daughter and our son, and then decades later for our granddaughters. Like most children, they were too young to really grasp what was happening, and perhaps slightly overwhelmed, but like most parents and grandparents, that didn’t stop us from embracing the pure joy of the occasions.
Or buying ornaments every year for our children so that they would have a collection in hand for their first tree, each with a story to tell.
There are so many entries that could be included in the book of memories:
The kitchen aroma of Mother’s anise cookies or her delicious divinity, or Bea’s spiced pecans, or even my own flourless chocolate cake; the taste of homemade eggnog, some with a little kick, others without; family breakfast with what you call French toast, but down home we call it “lost bread,” or perhaps beignets smothered in powdered sugar; the sweater weather in Mississippi and Atlanta, the ice storm in Dayton, the snow storm in Chicago, the sunshine and short sleeves in West Palm Beach and Miami and Corpus Christi, and for 30 years a weatherman’s potpourri in Sacramento.
The common theme in all the scenarios is family.
As the conversation ends, we each have our own recollections, but there is a shared conclusion: Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, whatever you celebrate, the best gift isn’t a bicycle or long pants, jewelry or electronics, toys or games, but what you believe it means.
The message is the gift. And the memories are the trimmings on the tree. Cherish both.
Gregory Favre is the former
executive editor of The
Sacramento Bee and vice
president of the McClatchy