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As celebrations change, family remains most important part of holiday

Christmas never stays the same

Posted: Sunday, December 15, 2002

Thank God it snowed!

I was starting to feel a little guilty about the lack of snow. After all, shortly after writing my last column about my fear of Alaska winters, I went out and bought a set of cross-country skis, hoping to attack the unfamiliar season with proactive enthusiasm.

Murphy's Law being what it is, I'm sure I'm at least partially to blame for the temperature's reluctance to drop. (Of course, that also means that by the time any readers actually see this column, the snow probably will be gone and the peninsula will be hit with yet another round of torrential rains. Please accept my apology in advance.)

But the point is, the snow came, at least for a couple days. And it brought my Christmas spirit with it.

Admittedly, I've never seen a white Christmas in my life -- and I won't this year either, since I was lucky enough to wrangle enough vacation time to spend a week with my family in Oregon.

Nonetheless, I'm convinced this is how the season is supposed to look and feel -- icicles hanging from power lines, air glittering with crystal drops, trees robed in white cloaks.

When I woke up Tuesday night to the glowing scene, my heart lifted. I spent Wednesday hopelessly trying to fight the child-like urge to run outside and make snowballs. I find myself wandering back to the window every few minutes for another look and shivering with a pleasant endorphin rush.

OK, the advance helpings of Christmas cookies may be contributing to the elevated mood, but it doesn't really matter -- it's all part of that holiday cheer that's finally arrived.

And not a moment too soon.

I find it's harder every year to grasp the Christmas enthusiasm that comes so easily in childhood. Part of it, I'm sure, is just getting older -- in many ways, the holiday is geared toward children, and as we age, the magic can fade all too easily. But it's also, in part, because as families grow, traditions are harder to hold on to.

When I was little, Christmas was simple. It started about eight days early with my birthday. Yes, having a December birthday can sometimes be a less than ideal situation (I find I could always use a birthday check boost round about July and my wardrobe -- which comes mostly from gifts -- is a little heavy on the winter apparel). But my parents were always very careful to make sure my birthday didn't get lost in the Christmas frenzy. It just had some extra-special features, like receiving my birthday presents under the tree.

Then there were the typical pre-Christmas activities: wrapping presents, hanging last-minute decorations, baking cookies, planning parties.

On Christmas Eve, my mother's side of the family would congregate at our house. We'd have traditional Danish fare (dumpling soup, wassil, snow pudding), maybe sing a few songs and open presents. My uncle Bob would disappear shortly before Santa mysteriously knocked on the door for a visit. Then we'd go to midnight Mass, come home, and my sister would snuggle into my bed with me to wait out the hours 'til Christmas morning (the excitement, I guess, was just too much for either of us to handle alone).

On Christmas Day, my sister would invariably be the first one up. She'd drag us downstairs, where my mom would make an aebelskiver brunch (yet another traditional Danish dish) and we'd set in on the second round of presents.

My dad's family would show up later in the afternoon for round three.

By the time I was in high school, the agenda changed a bit. There was a new church, a new house and a whole new family.

Let's just say that having a stepfather who flies for FedEx (Christmas is NOT a day off) and a family tree laced with a few divorces and remarriages makes for some interesting holiday fun.

Really, it is fun. But it's also very different. Christmas is no longer a two-day event -- it sometimes pushes two weeks. And it's no longer a bit predictable.

The cousins and siblings have grown up and scattered to the winds (and my move to Alaska hasn't made things easier). Many have started families of their own. It's hard to guess who will show up for which party, where the events will take place or what food will be served (you can only make -- let alone eat -- the elaborate traditional fare so many times).

Last week, my mom called me to ask which traditions I needed her to fulfill for me while I was at home. I was hard-put to answer.

I can't go back and recreate the Christmases of my childhood. I don't think I'd want to if it meant giving up the Christmases of my adolescence. And this year will probably be nothing like either one.

That's OK. Times change, and so do traditions.

I guess the only tradition that really matters is spending the holiday with family -- in whatever form it takes.

I just wish I could take the snow with me.

Jenni Dillon is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.



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