Column: Families have special Christmas traditions

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Roger VanHaren

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote a wonderful radio play in 1955 called “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” which began like this: “One Christmas was so much like another … that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was 12, or whether it snowed for 12 days and 12 nights when I was 6.”

Sometimes I think my memory works like that – my memory is dyslexic. But there are certain memories of Christmas of which I’m sure.

Most families have their own traditions, their special ways of observing this wonderful, joyous time of year. I grew up poor in financial terms only. We lived in a log cabin without electricity or running water. Our central heating was a big old cast-iron cookstove fueled by logs cut from our own woods.

In the wintertime, white leaf-patterned hoarfrost would form on the single-paned windows of the cabin. The frost would crack and melt and freeze again as the heat from the cookstove spread across the room and touched the glass. The light from the flickering kerosene lamps (some of which we still have in our house, but never use) would dance on the small clear areas of the window panes, which were black against the night.

At Christmas time, we’d have a small tree, simply decorated – no twinkling midget lights – with lots of tinsel and a few ornaments. There weren’t many gifts, but my sister and I didn’t complain. We didn’t know about the wealth of toys and stuff that was out there; we didn’t see TV ads that hawked the latest movie merchandising stuff like kids do now.

Christmas was a neat time when there were lots of Mom’s big thick cut-out cookies with the white frosting, a very special treat. And fruitcake, too! And there was midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

And I can remember, but not too clearly, a Christmas when I was about 5 or 6 years old. Santa came to our house! I was just on the edge of being a non-believer, but Joyce was a year younger and still a real believer. And I knew that year that Santa was “Big John” Konitzer, our neighbor from across the road! I just happened to be looking out the window and saw him get out of his car and come up the path to the house.

Big John had the right physique, and he was wearing a long white beard that looked like he’d cut off a horse’s tail. He didn’t have a Santa suit; he was decked out in his big red-and-black plaid mackinaw with a matching red-and-black plaid wool cap with ear flaps. Times were tough, and he did the best he could to be the jolly old elf in red. And even if I hadn’t seen him get out of his car, I’d have seen through the disguise. But I didn’t let on. After all, Joyce still believed.

I don’t remember what Big John, I mean “Santa,” brought that year, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Mom and Dad were doing the best they could to make Christmas special for Joyce and me. They tried very hard to make all of our Christmases special.

My Grandpa VanHaren lived with us, so we always had a lot of company at holidays. Most of my dad’s siblings and their kids (lots of ’em) would come to visit Grandpa (and us), so the house was always full of people, good cheer and the smells of Mom’s cooking. It was an amazing family time.

Christmas at our house has always been a big family time, too. Our kids, their spouses, and all of our grandkids would be here sometime over the holidays. But times are changing, and the kids now have their own families to make their Christmases their own. We saw most of them over Thanksgiving, so we have those memories to keep us warm over Christmas.

The bedrooms won’t be wall-to-wall beds this year, and the living areas won’t be scattered with toys and shoes (nobody in our family wears shoes in the house). There will be no fussing from the littlest kids and disagreements among the older kids – and the adults.

But we’ll have the sounds of a family enjoying being together echoing in our ears. I wouldn’t trade this season for anything! This time of family togetherness is worth a whole year of waiting!

Every Christmas Eve, Marilyn sings a song she taught to elementary school kids back in the early 1960s when we first came to Beaver Dam. The song begins, “Tomorrow will be Christmas, and we will carols sing, and early in the morning, the sweet church bells will ring, ring-a-ling.” And if our kids are not going to be with us on Christmas Eve, as sometimes happens, she’ll call and sing to them – or to their answering machines.

It’s sort of a joke, but not really; it’s gotten to be a sort of tradition with our family. And this season is all about traditions, isn’t it?

Contact Roger VanHaren at