It’s the holiday season. Sugar cookies are baking. Turkey is roasting. A fire is roaring. And your favorite Christmas music is playing.
These and more are the traditions we embrace around the holidays. Christmas and such traditions go together like Santa and cookies, sugar plums and fairies, chestnuts and an open fire.
For me, none stand out more than my father reading Clement C. Moore's "A Visit from St Nicholas," more popularly known as " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas," to me and my three siblings each Christmas Eve.
There's a feeling of a joyous ritual in this entire holiday experience. Our family gathers in our old Victorian home with a welcoming fireplace; two dark cat silhouettes guard the hearth, as they have since I was a child in this beautiful white edifice. I can't lie, the house is especially gorgeous around the holidays. My parents have never used holiday lights around the house. Instead, candles are usually placed in the windows, and garland around the wooden banister on the staircase. We've been looking for a larger evergreen garland for the front wrought-iron fence. Maybe one year we'll find a set that we'll think matches the grand beauty of our family home.
Like many families, we honor the tradition of opening one present on Christmas Eve, and even though we're all grown, it's still something my sisters, brother and I look forward to. My siblings might scout out the presents under the tree to find something that fits the size and shape of an item we asked Santa to deliver. And, yes, Santa does still deliver to our house. Usually it's brand-new warm and fuzzy pajamas wrapped in a Santa-themed gift wrap under the tree.
The tree is another point of pride. With the high ceiling in the old home, we usually get a 9-foot blue spruce. It's decorated with ornaments collected over the years with themes including "The Twelve Days of Christmas," Beatrix Potter, Goebel scenes and more.
The mantel, aside from the mandatory stockings hung with care, has a nativity set my uncle shipped to my parents in the 1970s, the set is still stored in the taped up box it was shipped in and breakable figures wrapped in newspaper and tissue paper that is likely as old as I am.
We go to a Christmas Eve mass and upon returning mom has usually prepped the "Christmas Eggs" for the morning so the casserole just needs to be popped in the oven for breakfast. And we begin to nibble on shrimp and sliced deli meats and cookies. My brother's favorite holiday treat in our house is homemade "chocolate meatballs" and Italian Anginetti. Both recipes, written on old, yellowing paper in my mother's small, beautiful and distinct hand, trace back to my father's mother, who came to New York State from Sicily.
If you've never tried either cookie you can usually find Anginetti at local Italian festas. And my brother might share his treasured chocolate glazed treats with you. Maybe.
We’ve recently tried instituting a new tradition, for our family anyway, of doing the “Feast of the Seven Fishes” dinner. It’s a commitment, albeit a delicious one, and hopefully that will catch on more in our dining room around the holidays as time passes.
On full bellies, and usually dressed in our new, comfortable pjs, we might watch one of several versions of A Christmas Carol, based on the classic Charles Dickens novel. We still have VHS tapes of the George C. Scott and The Muppets versions, though we have also caught up with the times and purchased the films on DVD.
We rarely make it through watching the entire film. Christmas Eve is tough work and we usually start to fall asleep in front of the TV, swaddled, blanketed and crammed next to one another as we were as kids.
It's around this time in the evening — maybe 10 p.m. or so since my family is mainly filled with night owls — that dad settles into an arm chair in the front living room by the fire that he's stoked through the evening.
The book that he reads from is no ordinary book. It's a pop-up version of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas that is about 30 years old according to the copyright date. He bought it at Fatone’s in downtown Troy and at that time thought the emerging images might better grab the attention of squirming, excited children on Christmas Eve. I asked him recently how long it would take to read to us and he said it would be about 30 minutes, depending on how many questions we asked while he was reading.
The book, a Hallmark product with a nod in the preface to the poem being first published locally, is in surprisingly good shape. You can still turn a paper wheel to see sugar plums dancing in the children's heads and you can still pull a tab to make St. Nicholas disappear in the chimney. There are some tears and taped bits. Dad summarized the reason as being from "tiny hands doing their thing" over the years.
As I look now over the hardcover book, there is what looks to be a line of eight tiny reindeer on the back. Upon further inspection, it's actually a hardened chocolate stain in the shape of a sleigh and reindeer. I would imagine our tiny hands and large sweet tooth might have had something to do with that as well.
As dad reads from his chair, my siblings and I lay on the couch, which, like the nativity scene and many pieces on the tree, also dates back. It's the couch we've all taken our Christmas naps on over the years. And so, while picking at chocolate on the nearby coffee table, we listen to our dad read the poem, one he could probably recite by heart by now — that each of us could. And sometimes we still play with the tabs and circles and colorful pop ups of the book until that final verse: Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.