Except for the usual commercial ones, we had no special Christmas traditions in my family when I was a child. We didn’t even prepare our own dinner, since the head of the household, a career military man, was expected to show up, family in tow, to partake of the U.S. Army’s generic holiday spread at the officers’ mess. That was also the case at Thanksgiving, so my cherished childhood memories do not include the tantalizing aroma of a juicy turkey bubbling in the oven, its skin growing crisp and golden, nor of chopping celery and onions for Big Mama’s cracker dressing, an extended-family tradition that I reclaimed later in my life.

(Photo: MSG Jason Shepherd, US Army Pacific Public Affairs)

As an American military family abroad, first in Japan and later in Germany, we attended non-denominational Protestant religious services, too, promoting a kind of generic Christianity in these formative years. So, until I was old enough to introduce other families’ traditions into our home, the warm memories of my Christmases past were pretty much confined to enjoying the caliber of the loot I found under a foldable aluminum Christmas tree – like the year I was eleven, when I was able to cadge a silver charm bracelet AND a lavender skirt and sweater set.

Other families, I was learning, were different. They hung stockings, decorated live Christmas trees, caroled and wassailed and baked and feasted. They made eggnog, they attended special services at their churches, they read aloud on Christmas eve such classics as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. We, I eventually determined, could do the same. In theory, my family agreed such ideas sounded like fun. But getting them to participate was another matter.

The Christmas eve that I bought a copy of the Dickens book and dragged my parents, brother and sister to the living room for a read-aloud, they lasted, collectively, about half an hour. One ran to answer the telephone; one wandered off to the bathroom, not reappearing until the reading was safely over, and so on. It took me three hours, but I finished the little book that night, reading it aloud – alone.

Gradually, though, they came to accept my little introductions, and we ultimately became like other families in observing a set of recurring traditions that gave us some nicer collective holiday memories.

There was the Christmas I was sixteen, when I purchased Christmas stockings for all of us, grandparents included, to hang – well, not on the mantel, as we had no fireplace, but in the Florida room of our ranch house in Columbus, Georgia. Being that this was a new tradition to us, there was nothing in the stockings that year except the gag gifts I bought at the dimestore – but they made for some funny moments. I’ll never forget the expressions – surprise and amusement – on my granddad’s face when he pulled the lime-green necktie embossed with a hula dancer out of his stocking, or my grandmother’s gleeful confusion as she took out a pair of black net bikini panties embroidered with red lips and struggled to fit them over her blue-gray curls, thinking the item was a bonnet to protect her hairdo from the wind.

Some gifts are more memorable than others. One of the most unforgettable for me was the $1,000 bill in the toe of my Christmas stocking the year my father-in-law, the late Joe David Brown, published his eighth novel. Not only had Addie Pray been well received, Dad had sold the rights to Paramount for what would become Paper Moon, directed by Peter Bogdanovich. To celebrate his success, Joe David went to great lengths to find a quantity of the large bills, not easily available from a bank, and all of us got one – sons, daughters and in-laws. It was the first thousand-dollar bill I’d ever seen, and I’ve yet to see another. How I spent that windfall is long since forgotten, but I’ll never forget the excitement of finding it, down in the depths of that stocking.

But the very greatest Christmas gift of all, appropriately, came from a child – my then nine-year-old daughter, Katie. It involved on her part a seven-year-old memory, coupled with a rare imagination.
When Katie was three, she learned her multiplication tables by reciting them to me as we commuted to and from her nursery school. Consequently, the largest number she knew was 12 X 12 = 144. And so, whenever Katie was extremely pleased with me, she would announce her intent to give me “144 kisses” – the greatest quantity she could imagine, and the ultimate sign of her approval.

Seven years later, faced with the dilemma of finding a Christmas present for me on her limited allowance, she scoured the shopping mall for something special, growing increasingly frustrated with the limited choices a handful of dollars could command. Then, as dramatically as in a cartoon where inspiration takes the form of a lightbulb coming on, she had her solution and marched off to the mall drugstore to make her selection.

Relieved she had found a solution that made her happy, I gave little thought to what the gift might be, assuming to find some little spray bottle of cologne or a polyester sleep mask. I was stunned when I unwrapped the carefully wrapped and decorated package and beheld my prize – a quantity of Hershey’s kisses. One hundred and forty-four of them, to be exact.

She’s all grown up now, and a mother herself. Many holidays have come and gone since that one. But every year at this time, I experience all over again the wonder and joy of such a perfect expression of the love of a child – one that took virtually every penny of her holiday gift allowance, but was more precious to me than rubies and pearls. Nothing in my life will ever taste as sweet again.

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  • Laura Sillerman December 9, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    As always and ever, Billie speaks to us from her special perch on the uppermost branch of the tree of hardwon memories and rock solid decisions. She gave birth to her own Christmas traditions and we’re all the merrier and wiser for them.