When I drove home a few nights ago, I couldn't help but notice the number of houses decorated with an array of colored lights.
Each house beamed with character, silently conveying the time, effort and cheer that went into the visual productions the families planned and gave passersby.
After passing the festive homes, I recalled the time and energy that was spent every year as a loving surprise for me, all in the name of Christmas.
Each year, but never on the same day, I would get off the school bus at the end of my driveway or road and look to my home. What I saw always brought a smile to my face.
Even before entering my house, I could see the gleam of the many strands of lights that outlined each window sill.
Though the outside was rarely decorated, the colorful brilliance illuminated from every frosty pane. But the view of the lights could never prepare me for what I would find inside -- what my mom referred to as "Christmas gaud."
The lights were not even the beginning.
I later found out this event was a laborious process of lugging dozens of boxes from closets and corners and delicately unwrapping fragile decorations passed from other family members. But no matter how it occurred, to me it was the most exciting day of the year.
Every inch of our cozy living room was Christmas.
Santa Claus, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, and snowmen offered festive smiles.
The room gleamed with lights reflecting off swags of colored tinsel garland that graced every doorway and window, the entertainment center and -- when we had one -- the mantle.
The entire content of the living room I had sat in the night before, with the exception of furniture, was replaced with Christmas. Everyday knickknacks had been traded for candy dishes shaped like jolly St. Nick and delicate figures of mice or puppies sporting Santa hats.
Stockings given to me every year from my grandmother were hung, as if to celebrate each passing year, as well as the season.
My mom would sit back and watch as I roamed the room, looking at each item as if I had never laid eyes on it.
For hours afterward, we would occupy ourselves with remembering where we found each figure or trying to figure out how many lights in all my mother had hung.
She also would save special figures or a window for me to help her decorate.
After the initial frenzy calmed, I then would wait eagerly for my father to come home so the excitement and wonder would begin again with the entire family.
The "Christmas gaud," as we still refer to it, somehow made the season one to anticipate. We would call family and explain how elaborate Mom had gotten, then brainstorm ways to make it better the next year.
Though I thought the decorations could not get any better, the next year, somehow, they were.
The eyes of my friends would light up when I would have them over to show off Mom's work. They often would return to school after the visit and announce that their family had decorated, but "not like yours."
In the years since I have been out of high school, I have helped Mom's decorating effort, dragging boxes out of crawl spaces and closets. I've hung lights per the instructions of the Christmas gaud queen, learning more every year about the art of proper decoration.
Since I have been married, I now have boxes of my own to drag out of closets and corners. Some baubles and mementos I have purchased because they have special meaning, others were handed down from my mother's collection.
I decorate elaborately, but my home never meets my expectations. It's never quite as good as Mom's.
This year, due to the death of my grandmother, both our houses are dark. The boxes were not even opened. The decorations must hibernate for another year, and the holiday cheer often must be dug from the depths.
While taking a break from the holidays, I have gained perspective about what Christmas means to me.
Though expensive presents, sugary snacks and parties are nice, it is the small things that are remembered in the long run, the expressions of love that truly come from the heart.
For me, each holiday season will come and go, but the memories I am left with last longer than material possessions that sit on a shelf collecting dust.
So, today, on her birthday, I thank my mom for providing me with all of these precious memories that have helped get me through the hard times and always bring a smile to my face. I will treasure them forever.
Merry Christmas and happy birthday, Mom.
Sara J. Smith is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.
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