As we prepared for Christmas last night, Patrick asked me if I had any Christmas Eve traditions that I wanted to pass on to Miles. At first, I thought of the excitement of unwrapping that first present just before bed,* and reading the story of Christ's birth from the Bible.
And then I remembered my favorite tradition of Christmas Eve. And it's not one I can really pass on to Miles.
When I was a kid, Christmas Eve was almost always reserved for Grandma Joy. We would go over in the early afternoon to help make the dinner, then eat waaay too much, and play games until all of my little cousins passed out. Slowly, people would trickle out until it was just me, my sister, and our cousin Tasha. Then, it was time for our tradition.
Tasha was only three or four years old when we started this - at her request. She was concerned that the animals in the woods behind Grandma's house wouldn't get to have a big Christmas dinner like we'd had. She begged us to help her string popcorn, cheerios, berries, and any other little bits of food we could find into a garland. Then, we would all troupe out to the woods to find the perfect tree. In all the years we did this, it was never an evergreen tree, though I never thought of it at the time. It was always some skinny little tree whose bare, leafless branches were low enough for us to reach. Ever so carefully, already shivering in the cold, we would wrap our garland on the tree, and Tasha would pronounce, "Now, the animals have Christmas dinner, too." And we would sing Christmas carols, that the animals might hear, and be cheered by them.
Inevitably, we would be halfway through a song, when out of nowhere, we heard jingle bells. My sister and I knew our cue well. One of us would say, "Do you hear that?" and Tasha would squeal with delight, knowing that Santa was on his way. We would point into the air, trying to convince one another that we had seen Rudolph's nose. Exciting as the moment was, though, it was a sign that our evening was over - Tasha had to rush home to get in bed before Santa got there, or he wouldn't leave her any toys!
I had no idea at the time how special those moments were, or how often I would look back on them fondly, wishing that somehow, I could pass this tradition down to my son. But we live a long way off, now, and won't be at Grandma Joy's on Christmas Eve. And even if we were, it could never be the same. Tasha is no longer the three-year-old child waiting on Santa, but a beautiful young woman on the verge of adulthood. My sister is a married woman. And I have a child of my own, who is so different from - and yet, so similar to - those three little girls who took food to the animals.
Someday, I will again find a wood, where I can hang a Christmas dinner for the animals. But it will never be the same as those magical Christmas Eves of my childhood, shared with two of my closest friends.
*Even though we knew it was clothes.