Christmas, to me, is a holiday that fully involves the senses. The sound of jingle bells and Christmas music, the smell of pine trees, the taste of gingerbread, the prickly branches of the Christmas tree and the sharp pointy end of a candy cane when savored slowly, and how if you squint your eyes just right, the Christmas lights look like stars. Maybe this is why it is such a nostalgic holiday; it has so many pathways to bring back memories.
Christmas in the Uppgaard house was a big deal, all starting when the Advent wreath appeared at church, with the first purple candle lit and flickering.
Each Sunday evening after we finished dinner, we gathered around our own candle lit Advent wreath, trying to pay attention during the prayers, while anxiously awaiting the Christmas cookies and eggnog that followed.
We ended our prayers by singing a Christmas song, usually “Silent Night” or “Away in the Manger”, during which, whoever was leading started the song too high or too low, causing giggle fits between the siblings and stern looks from the parents as half the group went too high and the other half tried to compensate by switching octaves, only to end up way too low. Let’s just say that our family isn’t full of good singers (although there are a few).
After our prayers concluded, cookies were eaten, and the eggnog was glugged, it was time for the highly anticipated candle snuffing.
We had a Christmas-themed candle snuffer, dark green with a holly leaf and berry on top of the cap. We rotated through the position of candle snuffer, and all who were not selected looked on jealously as the snuffing commenced.
Invariably, someone (Pieter or Anders), put the snuffer too far down on the candle, splattering the hot wax and ruining the shape of the candle. Most nights ended with an in-service on how to properly use a candle snuffer, put on by no other but the esteemed Dr. Uppgaard.
The taste of gingerbread brings me back to the large kitchen table that our Dad had built himself, big enough for a family of 10 plus an extra leaf for guests.
There, we decorated freshly cut and baked gingerbread cookies. Envision 8 kids at the table, each with their own knife to spread frosting, and sprinkles. Let’s just say it was a process, and I don’t know how my parents have remained psychologically intact after 35 years of cleaning up sprinkles and frosting that I’m sure made their way into every crevice of the house.
Given that we were kids, we always thought it was best to try and put as much frosting as possible on the cookies. They were a recipe for diabetes, heart disease, and a disaster of a kitchen. And while they tasted good, most were ugly.
Some of my creativity may be rooted in the gingerbread decorating: the cyclops, the headless man dripping in blood (red frosting and red sprinkles), the one hundred and seven ways to decorate a star cookie, and the classic, “how many red hots can you fit onto one cookie” competition.
In these pre-COVID days, there was a fair share of finger-licking, despite instructions to avoid this behavior. To make matters more precarious, there was a rule: once you are done decorating gingerbreads, you can lick whatever frosting and sprinkles are left on your plate.
Obviously, the way to exploit this rule was to “accidentally” dump mounds of sprinkles on your plate while decorating cookies. “Oops! I guess I will have to eat those later!”
The moral of the story is that our parents are saints and gingerbreads from our house could have caused a worldwide pandemic had COVID hit back in the 90’s. Contact tracing would lead the CDC back to the cookie platters my mom innocently gifted people.
Christmas Eve morning, as my siblings and I sat around the table eating our last healthy meal for the next two days, my dad would stomp inside, bringing in a wave of cold air and a cardboard box full of chopped wood for the fire.
He’d stop by the table on his way over to the fireplace. “Do you think Santa’s going to come tonight?”
Christmas Eve afternoons were spent at Grandpa and Grandma Dubay’s house. It is important to note that I have over 40 cousins on that side of the family (and honestly, I’m not sure what the actual number is).
Upon entrance, we made our way up the orange shag carpet stairs where we were greeted up top by our little, maybe 5 foot tall, 100% Irish, Grandma. She smothered us in hugs, kisses, and whispers in our ears about how much Jesus loved us.
Grandpa could be found at the stove, stirring gravy or checking the temperature on the massive turkey he had been cooking all day. He took great pride in those 30 lb turkeys, and maybe even more pride in his electric carving knife.
We brought our winter coats back to our Grandparents’ bed, the only spot in the house large enough to hold the winter gear of 40+ people. En route, we passed the kitchen table filled with sides, rolls, salads, and my Aunt Brenda’s famous fudge. We eagerly eyed up the food, planning which foods would make the cut for our first plateful.
After eating, we processed through the house with our cousins, singing Christmas carols, with the leader of the procession holding the Jesus figurine from the nativity set. We walked through each room, finally processing back to “the porch”, where we placed baby Jesus in the nativity set and prayed as a family.
An uncle would mysteriously disappear to take a nap to sleep off the turkey, and soon after, Santa arrived.
His arrival was marked by the sound of jingle bells and “ho ho ho’s”. The youngest of the group hid in terror, while the oldest in the group couldn’t wait to pull at Santa’s beard and try to out him.
Santa distributed presents, then knelt in front of the Nativity scene to pray, and left, reminding us to be good for our parents.
After that, we were free to run loose with our cousins in the tiny house until it was time to go, stopping at the kitchen table for another cookie, pickle, or fudge, whenever we needed strength to continue on with our arduous little lives.
Christmas mornings started bright and early, while it was still dark. Our Dad opened the bedroom door and announced, “Santa came!” while we all clamored out of bed.
We waited atop the stairs until every child was ready. Our dad led us down the stairs to a scene that can best be described as magical: glistening presents illuminated only by the lights of the Christmas tree. We tried to make out the dark shadows of gifts, only to be led past the tree to the family room where our bulging stockings hung by the crackling fire.
“The Nutcracker” ballet music played on the record player as we read the note from Santa, noting that he had eaten all the cookies we’d left out and that Rudolph had a couple bites of the carrots.
Then we opened our stockings, and finally, we made our way under the tree to open gifts. It was mass chaos, but consistent with the parenting style of Dr. & Mrs. Uppgaard, it was organized chaos.
After the gift opening, there was a flurry of activity as we attempted to get dressed for church and eat breakfast prior to 7:30am mass.
We arrived at church when it was still dark, the church only lit by candles, and filled with the music of the violinists warming up.
There, in the quiet church, we muttered prayers of thanks; and for those still waiting on a desired gift, prayers of petition.
After church, we made our way to Grandma Uppgaard’s house. She had a string of jingle bells attached to her doorknob, cheerily ringing whenever the door was opened.
G greeted us at the door, pulling us into a boney yet warm hug with kisses on the cheeks, her blue eyes twinkling. Her house always smelled delicious, usually with undertones of prime rib and accents of cheesy potatoes and wild rice.
Compared to the Dubay side of our family, the Uppgaard side was a little quieter, with only 4 cousins. We spent our time opening gifts in an orderly fashion, playing with our cousins, and leaving by 2pm.
The rest of the day was leisurely spent napping, eating leftovers, and playing with our new toys.
They were the best of days, the Christmases of my childhood. Looking back, it’s not the gifts I received that stuck (although I do remember Sally, the cabbage patch doll who I attempted to do brain surgery on).
What did stick are the memories of time spent with people I loved, the laughter, the feeling of coziness, the magic.
With COVID, we will be staying in Florida for Christmas this year. It will be nothing like the Christmas I described above; and yet, Florida does have a charm of its own for Christmas.
There is something rather beautiful about a fully lit palm tree, despite the fact that it isn’t a pine tree. We are able to drive around in our golf cart to view the Christmas lights in the neighborhood without freezing to death. And thankfully, we do have family down here to celebrate with.
Wishing you and yours the Merriest Christmas, whether celebrated in palm trees or pines,
There are memories that couldn’t fit into this post but still stand worth mentioning: the angel candles with fans above that always ended up rotating in the wrong direction, the pickup hockey games in the rink out back, the sibling sleepover on Christmas Eve (when we all crammed ourselves into one bedroom and got the worst sleep of our lives), the cranberry fluff and party mix, and the newish and awful tradition of lutefisk which in my book is not a food, the sibling gift exchange where every year at least one sibling forgets who they have and ruins the entire thing, and finally, the years that Santa would forget a gift, luckily to be quickly “found” by our parents.