Christmastime when I was a kid consisted mostly of waiting, waiting, waiting for the moment when we could finally open our presents. That and putting up with aunts and uncles and grandparents, many of whom seemed incredibly old and stodgy.
One strange custom back then was teaching children how to sing the old Christmas melodies - and then forcing them to croon said tunes in front of an audience! I was a reluctant songster and would carol only after being threatened with serious bodily harm.
"You'd better SING or else!" our music teacher would hiss. I didn't know what "or else" entailed, but assumed from her tone that it involved the forcible removal of a major body part.
One of our family's unalterable traditions was spending Christmas Eve at Grandpa and Grandma Hammer's house. Convincing eight kids to quit our snug, warm home and pile into our frozen, drafty station wagon took a humungous amount of effort from our parents.
Christmas Eve would find Grandpa and Grandma's house stuffed to the rafters with people and food. The aromas of good things cooking infused the old farmhouse, with steam rising from a bevy of busily bubbling pots. To my great pleasure - and to the deep consternation of many others - one of those pots contained a slab of lutefisk big enough to choke a polar bear.
While waiting for the food, we kids would "horse around" with our cousins until we were sternly told to "settle down." We would then closely examine the Christmas tree, especially the drift of gifts at its base. I was fascinated by Grandma's candle-shaped lights, the kind that contained a fluid and burped an endless stream of bubbles. I wondered: where did those ephemeral things come from? And where did they all go?
When supper landed on the table, we tore into it like infantrymen fresh off a 100-mile march. One could easily lose a finger while reaching for the lefse.
After supper we had to "visit," which was adult-speak for "sit and yak about the old days."
Who cared about the old days? We were children of the Space Age! We didn't want to hear about the past! After all, we would soon be tooling around in our flying cars and strapping on our rocket belts!
It was tough to stay focused on the 21st century while keeping company with people who were born the 19th century.
After making us wait several additional agonizing minutes, we were at last allowed to open our presents. This was followed shortly by a fresh round of horsing around. Grandpa decided that this might be an opportune moment to share a shot of Christmas wine, which was usually Mogen David and of a purple vintage.
If a kid were deemed old enough, he or she might be offered a small sample. It was only a swallow, but that tiny taste of wine made us feel like we were part of the grownup world.
The wine also made us extremely sleepy, which caused our parents to declare that it was time to go home. This was probably Grandpa's plan all along. He was a cagey old codger.
We didn't realize it then, but we were enjoying some of the best things this world has to offer.
My wife and I are friends with a couple who graciously invites a large group of folks into their home for a pre-Christmas gathering. The Cooley house was built in 1908 and has managed to avoid any major remodeling. It has thus retained much of its original charm.
Many of those who gather at the Cooley Christmas party are gray-headed grandparents, people who doubtless seem incredibly old and stodgy to the youngsters in attendance. The Cooley home becomes stuffed to the rafters with people and the wondrous aromas of a luscious potluck supper. The creaky old house reverberates with the buzz of conversation as vast quantities of "visiting" takes place.
Someone will sit at the piano and tickle it until the tinkle of old Christmas melodies fill the air. Childhood training impels many of the assembled to sing; eyes mist over as the songsters recall bygone days and the old folks who are now gone. Where did they all go?
A person peering into the Cooley home at that moment might find it difficult to determine if it's 1911 or 2011. That is, if it weren't for the occasional photo being snapped with a cell phone.
No matter how enjoyable our experience, the cobwebs will gradually begin to sneak into my brain, signaling that it's time to head home. And I'll say to my wife, "We'd better go before I fall asleep and you have to carry me out to the car!"