The older I get the more I appreciate this time of year. At our house, we call this season Christmas, because that’s the tradition Suezette and I grew up in.
So, every year I appreciate Christmas more, and the reason is simple. The stress is less. No waiting for airlines to find a couple of seats for our homebound flight. No danger of spending a night in a ditch at a rural intersection.
We’ve survived these things, and we’re happy we don’t have to risk them again.
There was a holiday when guests were stranded in our house. Neither planes, trains, buses nor cars could move because of the snow. Now we just watch the snow pile up. No one’s coming or going, so there’s time to get the snow moved out of the way.
We’ve abandoned holiday stress for our own traditions.
Of course, there’s a bit of nostalgia involved. St. Nicholas Day, for example, which falls on Dec. 6. This is special to me because about that day every year when I was young, a package arrived at our house. It came from the Netherlands, from relatives of my grandmother, who died when I was a toddler, so they must have been cousins of my father a degree or two removed.
We thought these packages were odd. They always contained homemade soap and needlework, including handmade washcloths — rather intimate gifts, in other words. Dad explained that these Dutch relatives valued these things because they’d lived without them only a few years before, during the war, when the Nazis overran their country and they were reduced to scarcity.
Appreciate what they send, he said.
I had no trouble with that directive, because the boxes also invariably contained licorice. The Dutch are the world’s masters of licorice, and these Christmas packages are responsible for my lifelong addiction to the stuff. The packages had another profound influence. The idea that we were related to people somewhere else was intoxicating; our town was a small one, after all, and we literally knew everybody.
Of course, everyone has a distant family, but the Dutch made Nicholas — also known as Santa Claus — an icon of Christmas.
These are pleasant memories of Christmas Past.
There are anxious memories, as well, such as worrying whether Santa Claus could find our farm, which wasn’t very big and didn’t have much to distinguish it from any other farm. One year, my brother and I shimmied up the windmill to wrap Christmas lights around the top of the tower — it was 40 feet up in the air — so that Santa Claus would be able to find the place.
Looking back on this caper, I think we must have done it in the interest of my little sister, or perhaps the children of older siblings, our nieces and nephews. Surely no boy who still believed in Santa Claus would be old enough to shimmy up a windmill.
I don’t know if our signal helped the old gent find our place. The reindeer probably knew the way, since they’d been there before. But the windmill surely did bring a lot of curious neighbors over to check out the display. Some people even drove out from town.
Christmas brought a kind of sacrifice. Ours was a Catholic household, and that meant nothing to eat until after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. The interval, of course, was spent opening gifts, including the licorice those Dutch relatives had sent three weeks before. The box always contained horehound candy as well, my father’s favorite. He insisted that I taste it. Not to would be disrespectful, he said. And ungrateful.
The horehound drops were another of the anxious holiday moments.
Through nearly 50 years together, Suezette and I have developed our own holiday routines, including the particular order in which we play our Christmas albums. Instead of a tree, we have potted plants, bright red amaryllis and various kinds of holiday cactus.
How could it be Christmas without these traditions, which encourage sharing across the years and across the oceans and across the table?
As we age, the holiday season brings a kind of quiet confidence, even in an unquiet time. A Christian hymnist once called it “blessed assurance.”
Peace and joy to all of you this holiday season.
Wrong again: Stephen Easton was named interim president of Dickinson State University in mid-November. A search of online newspaper archives failed to turn up this news. Some readers also pushed back against my assertion that DSU’s previous president had improved morale.
Also, Tom Clifford was just 50 years old when he became president of UND in 1971. President-designate “Uncle Andy” Armacost is 52.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.