Christmas Through the Years
By Lolae Joline Lambert
I am about to experience my sixtieth Christmas... 60 days or two months of my life in holiday mode. What have I learned? What are my feelings about the holiday today? Does one day a year make a difference? Why is it special? Is it always the best day of the year? To answer I need to go back in time, something I seem to do a lot of these days.
I wish I could remember my first Christmas! I was eight months old. I am told that my parents made the day very special. I will take their word for it. The closest point of reference I have would be the first Christmas after my son was born. He was six months old; far too young to remember, but I do. One thing was certain. Everyone in the family was determined to make his Christmas special. Everything that day revolved around his presents, his smiles, and his reactions to the lights, food, and activities. Even though he does not remember the little red outfit from his grandmother or his first taste of cream from a cannoli, it was the gift of his birth to the family that made it an extra special Christmas. I can only imagine it was the same for my parents.
Christmas two leaves me blank, also. I have seen the photos and I am sure I was a very happy child. I look happy. My parents look happy. Life in the photos appears warm and loving. There are presents for me all over the room and Mom and Dad are smiling in every photo. Momís belly looked like she swallowed a basketball because she was expecting another baby, my brother who was born in January.
Christmas three I vaguely remember. It is fascinating to me how some things about that year are so clear in my mind and some I canít remember at all. Christmas day arrived and passed, but I do not remember a tree or my baby brother. It was not till that spring that memories in my mind began to line up with the photos in the album. I remember Easter vividly. My mother dressed me in a brand new Easter outfit, complete with new black patent leather shoes and frilly bonnet. My Dad sang the Easter Parade song as I flowed across the floor and twirled around in front of him delighted by his attention and approving smile. He sang the song every Easter my parents were together. But that is another holiday and I digress.
Christmas four found our family living three flights up in a one-bedroom furnished apartment in a major city. The furniture consisted of a kitchen table and chairs, a sofa bed, chair, and one end table with a lamp. The bedroom had one bed where my brother and I slept, a closet and one chest of drawers. Dad who was always interested in the latest tools and gadgets purchased a used television. Mom and Dad slept on a sofa bed in the living room. For Christmas, my father put up a very small tree in the corner on top of the used television set complete with blinking lights and a blinking angel top. From that day on I hated blinking lights. From where I slept in the bedroom the tree blinked and blinked at me. It gave me a headache!
I remember waking up in the middle of the night and seeing my parents by the tree. Dad was dangling something over Momís head and singing the then popular song ďI saw Mommy Kissing Santa ClausĒ. They were laughing and smiling very quietly. I have never forgotten that image and hearing that song sends me back to age four in another place and another time. I am sure they never knew I saw them that evening. I remember the tree, the apartment, the blinking lights, Mom and Dad laughing and singing, and even my brother, who is an entire story by itself. Yet, I could not tell you one gift I received. Maybe there was none.
We moved to Levittown in January into a rancher. To me it was huge, but by todayís standards you would call it a bungalow. Strangely I have many memories here, but I donít remember Christmas at all. I remember Mom making curtains for the big picture window, my step sister visiting, getting a dog that we had to give to my grandparents the next year, and parakeets who flew away while my Mom chased after them down the street trying to get them to come back to the house. I remember Easter with huge Easter baskets and colored eggs and egg hunt. I remember Hurricane Hazel as we lay in bed and counted the shingles falling off the roof. I remember the ice cream truck every day, the snowstorm, and the new Melmac dishes with strange colors. I remember breaking my toe, watching the school I thought I would attend be built up the street, the sweet potato plant I grew up the stair railing to the unfinished upstairs, the neighbors and spending time at their houses but no Christmas because by the end of summer we were moving back to the city. I suppose the real gift to me that year was that Mom was home with us all the time. Up to this point she always worked and it was a real treat to have her home for meals and to sew and play with us.
Christmas five goes down in history! Dad was in charge of putting up the tree on Christmas Eve. Then he and mom would decorate the tree after we were asleep, so we would wake up to a beautifully decorated tree with the presents. This year was different. Dad was out and did not come home. The tree needed to be put up and my determined mother was going to get it done! With help from my brother and me she placed the tree, which was quite large, in a bucket and stuffed the bucket with a variety of objects to hold it upright. She put water in the bucket and tied the tree up to the wall to keep it upright and that night began the tradition of helping to decorate the tree. Who knows what time Dad got home, but letís just say his Christmas was not pleasurable. My treasured present that year was a doctorís kit. I wanted to make people well and if you were nearby, you were about to get your heart listened to or you temperature taken. I might even hit your knee with the little hammer. I would declare you healed! I was good! It was this holiday season I began going to Sunday School at the Methodist Church a few blocks from our apartment.
Between Christmas five and six, we went to stay with friends in Florida for a few months. Things did not work out as planned and we moved back north to find myself experiencing Christmas six in a big city in another state. This was not a good experience. Money was very tight. Mom was working. Dad, who was in construction had difficulty finding work in the winter in the north and was unemployed. We did have a tree and we decorated it with a few decorations from a 5 and 10 store. The next morning there was one present each for my brother and myself. I do not remember what his was, but mine was a doll. She was all the more special because she was the only present. I clutched her to me and rocked her all day. That night Dad had too much to drink, which had now become the custom, and he and Mom were fighting. He picked up my doll and threw her across the room and she broke into pieces. To this day, I can feel the pain of that moment. How could he do that? It was my only present!
That January, the southern cure was once again attempted. Dadís big argument for living in the south was that not working made him depressed and he would have full time work in Florida, so off we went. We packed everything we owned into the car and drove 24 hours straight through to somewhere around Tampa. A billboard advertising cabins for rent is where the journey ended. The accommodations were small and uninviting. We made the best of it and settled in. My Mom wanted more permanence and to own her home and furniture. For Dad this never seemed an issue. He was content to settle into furnished places, pick up some extras second hand and move on if need be. People will say that drinking ended their marriage years later, but I think it was this unsolvable difference in how they wanted to live. Our new location became a blessing for me. One of my school friendís parents would pick me up every Sunday and take me to Church and Sunday School; something I had missed dearly since we left the city. Dad immediately found work and Mom and Dad forged a friendship that lasted many years with the landlords of the cabins. In fact, my newest brother who was born that August was named after the landlord. That Christmas was a first for me. It was 70 degrees and I was in Capri pants outside getting my photo taken with my new doll.
With the new baby on the way, we needed more space, so we rented a bungalow in a small community. That Christmas, it snowed in Florida. Well not like I was used to, more like flurries that barely coated the ground, but everyone seemed excited. I was not so impressed. With the exception of a bout of a serious illness for my Dad, life was pretty good for a while. Dad worked, Mom stayed home and we loved it. Mom became friends with the lady next door and I became good friends with her daughter. School was nice and everything had some normalcy. As usual, it was not long and Dadís work dictated another move. We were still in Florida, but in another small town. I remember we moved on Easter Sunday, which still seems strange to me today. We settled in and made new friends again, but it was only a few short months and we moved to yet another small town. I learned to be adaptable! Changing schools so often was a challenge.
We were not at the new location very long and Mom decided that she needed to go back North to be with her family. She was extremely homesick and nothing would make her feel better. Dad was not drinking. The southern cure did seem to work for him, but Momís roots ran too deep and she was very unhappy. Dad said he was not going back north, so she borrowed money from a relative for plane tickets for everyone, but Dad. She bought a steamer truck and packed all she could. When Dad saw she was determined to go, he agreed to come back north too and they used the money to drive home and get settled. It took a long time, but Mom paid the money back. What always struck me as interesting is that years later when they divorced, Dad could have easily relocated to the south, but lived less than 30 miles from where my mom lived until the day he died. Some things just canít be explained!
We moved north and into a three-bedroom log cabin in the country. I had to adjust to new friends and a new school. My first personal encounter with death came when a new friend from the neighborhood was stung by a bee and died. The fact that I am allergic to bee stings frightens me to this day. That same summer I became ill with chicken pox and in the fall my baby brother almost died from a disease caused by a mosquito bite. By the time Thanksgiving arrived Dad was out of work again. There was no money. Literally, the only thing to eat was a loaf of bread. Mom stepped up as always and found a job. Then she found an apartment in the town where she was working and we moved again. In one month Mom turned things around. That Christmas everything was fine. We had a lovely tree, food, gifts, and Mom and Dad seemed happy. The family came to visit over the holidays. I was going to a nice school and my brother and I even got to go to the movies once a week. It was winter and Dad was not working, but Mom was and she had found a good job. Life was good. Then the shocker! I do not know what happened. There was no fight and no explanation. Dad was gone and that was that. Mom said I had to step up to the plate as the oldest and take on more responsibility; a word I hated for many years. This was my ninth Christmas.
Christmas ten was very nice, but I missed my Dad. Mom met a nice man. He would make sure we had money for the Mister Softee truck. I know he gave Mom money for food, clothes, and most likely the presents for us for Christmas. We lived in a nice apartment and the living room was full of beautifully wrapped presents. I am trying to remember even one of them. What I remember is that I earned $4 helping around the house and I walked into town to the dollar store and purchased presents for Mom for Christmas. They were just ceramic angels, but she kept them on her shelf always. This was also the year that Kennedy beat out Nixon for the Presidency. The winds of change were beginning to blow. Momís birthday was right after Christmas and I went to sleep after cake and ice cream for her celebration and awoke to find my father sitting at the kitchen table. What a shock! It was the best Christmas present ever. It was not that I did not like Momís friend. He simply was not my Dad.
A few months back to the city and and again they seperated and Mom returned to her job her job in South Jersey... Dad was gone again. Her friend remained and while it did not always make me happy, I know he made life good for us. He did not live with us, but he was always there if we needed him. By Christmas eleven, we were in another place and Dad was back. It was a great ChristmasÖPlenty of presents and my parents together.
In the fall of the next year hurricane Esther devastated the shore area. Dad had plenty of work at the shore, but the commute was too much, so it was decided we would move again. We rented a very nice two-bedroom house near the shore and Dad worked every day. This time Mom continued to work also. I thought everything was fine and that Christmas was especially nice. Dad built a platform for the trains and we all had a wonderful holiday. I remember getting a portable hair dryer, a watch, my own radio, and a beautiful emerald green sweater. We had holiday meals as a family and not one mean word or terrible argument..At night we all watched TV as a family and mom made a snack for us to munch on.
Before we moved to the shore I had braces placed on my teeth and this meant we had to return monthly to the town we had left for an Orthodontist visit. On one trip, Mom stopped to see her friend. The next thing I knew, one day while Dad was at work, Mom packed everything up and moved us out. To this day, I have never been given any explanation why. I thought and still think it was a cruel way to leave, but it was my reality. Her friend found us a temporary house to live in, which was far too much money, but it was only until he could get us into public housing. It took a few months and then we moved again. I needed to make new friends and adjust to another school and Christmas twelve was average. I barely remember it. I wanted my father back.
By Christmas thirteen, I was working cleaning houses for people after school and on weekends. This supposedly kept me out of trouble and gave me money. So, I was more focused on buying things for others than in my gifts. I liked to be able to purchase presents for others. It felt wonderful!
Christmas fourteen I woke up to Dad in our living room again. Must have been something about the holiday that would make them think it might work out after all. It was a nice day and I will always treasure it. It was only about 2 weeks later that he left and that was truly the end of the marriage, although it took another year to end it legally. I did not see my father again until I went to look him up after I was eighteen. In the meantime, Mom met someone else. This man brought new experiences into my life. He did not have any children and he lavished his attentions and gifts on our Mother and me and my brothers. He treated her like a queen and I have to admit, life with him around was pleasant. Besides, my priorities were shifting as I was increasingly interested in boys.
By Christmas fifteen, we were living in a very nice half a house and our lives were good. There were so many nice gifts. You could see the wonder in our eyes to see so many presents. It was a miracle! The next summer before school started Momís new friend took me to a major department store and let me purchase five outfits for school. I had never been in a store like this. Thus began my love affair for finer clothing, jewelry, handbags and shoes. I saved my money from working and purchased many a new wardrobe. I even saved enough to purchase a bedroom set that I still own today. In addition he encouraged the family to return to church something I loved. Mom was able to stop working and we had a real home life.
Christmas sixteen was a repeat of Christmas fifteen with different gifts and an even newer home. For the first time in my life, I was allowed to bring home friends from school. Life was very good. This was also the year I met my sonís father. For me, it was love at first sight.At least thatís what I thought at the time. We began dating and most likely would have stayed that way, except our parents did not get along and this seemed to make us more determined than ever to be together. I became a very young bride when I married a few months short of 17. I had planned to go to school while married, but we discovered that you had to pay tuition if you were married to go to school. This was money we did not have. So it was decided I would work and save the tuition and go back to school. Seven months after we married, I became pregnant and that ended returning to school. You could not be enrolled in school if you were pregnant and you could not get your GED until you had been out of school for many years.
Christmas eighteen was my joyous Christmas. It was the one where the baby makes all the difference. Circumstances were not perfect, but what a joy to watch a baby experience life.
Christmas nineteen and twenty were turbulent times in my life. Issues with my husband and the on again off again relationship was taking its toll on everyone. Some holidays we were with his father some we were not. The summer of age twenty I took a job at a restaurant; something that was about to change my entire families life. Later that year, my mother leased the restaurant from the owner and later purchased the business. Mom was not only capable, but also determined to have what she wanted all her life and was always out of reach, a business of her own. She worked tirelessly and my brothers and I worked with her. She built an excellent clientele and excellent reputation. She was finally in charge of her own destiny.
Christmas twenty-one and twenty-two were kind of a blur because of issues with my sonís father. Christmas twenty-three, and twenty-four very nice, but the families still did not get along and that was always an issue at holidays.
Christmas twenty-five found me in a newly purchased home with my son and husband. We did not have any living room furniture, but we had a home and this year both families came to our house for dinner and were at least civil with each other. The next fall after months of my husband not working, it was evident that we could not keep the house. By this time I was done with this marriage at least in my mind. I asked my mother for help and she helped me relocate closer to the restaurant. My son and I settled in and then his father arrives singing that sweet song of repentance again. I foolishly believed him and put myself through another few months of torture before; I called it quits for good. Thus this was Christmas twenty-six. I could see the pattern developing. I was going to end the insanity of trying to make lemonade out of oranges.
Christmas twenty-seven was revival. I had a new life and a new friend. I had returned to school earlier for my GED and now was going to college in the evening. My mom lived up the street and I was only a few miles from work. My bills were paid and I had a few pennies to spare; yet Christmas twenty-seven may have been the most difficult of my life. I was alone. My son was off to spend Christmas Eve with my soon to be ex husband and his family, as was their tradition, and would be home later on Christmas Day. My friend was with his children on Christmas morning. Everyone was with family, but me. I sat in my living room with the tiny tree and nothing there for me and I cried. This is the first time I am admitting this to anyone. No one knows how low I was that morning.
Later in the day, I would be with family and even my friend. I would get a few presents and my friend purchased me the most beautiful poinsettia and a watch I have to this day. But the moments first thing in the morning, I was very alone... No distractions. It was in these moments that I began again. I asked for forgiveness and I forgave myself for any part I had wittingly or unwittingly played in the events to date. I thought about the focus of all the Christmases past. The hustle, bustle, people pleasing and gift giving and receiving and realized the emptiness of the activities. A few years earlier, I made the decision as an adult to be baptized. Now in these quiet moments, I knew I was His. It was His arms that were comforting me. It was His lips whispering hope in my ear. It was His plan for my life I wanted to know. I sat there with my Lord for a long time! When everyone else had abandoned me, He was there. The pain and the joy of that morning haunt me still. Later, my soon to be ex husband brought our son home and made some attempt to put us back together. To my surprise and more importantly to his surprise, there was no desire to continue on my part. Any chance of a reconciliation ended that morning. It was over and I was moving on. Where this journey would take me was still a mystery, but I knew that it did not include my husband and it did include my Lord.
Christmas twenty-eight was a much different experience. I ate breakfast with my Mom and brothers while my friend went to be with his children again. Later he came over and we opened presents. Christmas twenty-nine was much the same. So much was happening in my life, but new rituals and traditions were being established for Christmas and they were working fine.
Christmas thirty to thirty-six, we merged households and Christmas Eve became our family time with the children. There are so many wonderful memories. We had dinners, went to church as families, and shared moments and presents. Then the winds of change blew again. Children married and others went away to the service or college. Rituals and traditions were altered. Never again was there a Christmas Eve celebration with the complete family at our home. Each year was another loss. The year of Christmas thirty-five, my father passed away. In the light of all the changes my husband and I started going out to dinner to church on Christmas Eve... spending Christmas Day visiting the families.
Christmas thirty-seven to fifty-three were carbon copies of each other, except I lost my mother in 1998 and Christmas forty-eight was yet another big transition. Now she was no longer a part of any of the celebrations.
Christmas fifty-four arrived. My husband had passed away in June of 2004. Christmas morning I was alone again. I dressed and went to the childrenís homes, but it was not the same for me. Everyone promised me nothing would change, but I knew in my heart it was not true. Things would change and they did. But that morning, the first in 27 years, I was alone again. I wish I could tell you what I thought. It was so clear years ago. This time the day was so full of grief that I do not remember how I coped. I am sure His arms were around me again, and His voice whispering in my ear, but I was in a fog. Getting through the day was the best that I could do and I cried and cried
By Christmas fifty-five, everything was different. Once again I went to the childrenís but it seemed even more uncomfortable than the previous year. I decided I would not go any more. If the children truly wanted to see me, they could find some time during the holiday season to stop by and if not, then I will adjust again. I was building a new life but only the foundation was erected and the construction had not yet begun. This transition was painful, but necessary.
Christmas fifty-six to fifty Ėnine have been shall we say, non eventful. I still go out to dinner on Christmas Eve, but spend Christmas Day home chilling out. There are no more big celebrations and family gatherings. Next month it will be Christmas sixty.. Other than going out to dinner Christmas Eve and to Church, I have nothing planned. I am not totally alone, but I have none of the distractions or joys of children, presents, and even family controversy. Last year I promised myself I would do something different this year, but I admit I have not made the plans. The truth is I donít know what to do or how to change it, or even if I want to change it. There is a benefit in the quiet. I can hear the voice clearer and feel the touch stronger. I can focus on the reason for the season and not the rituals, traditions and dissatisfied relatives. I am free to do whatever I want. The question is what I want to do?
Some may wonder why I am sharing so many personal details about my life. I have wanted... no needed... to tell my story for a very long time. Partly, I think because I believe every person is important and we all have so much to share. Partly, because I hope that people may identify with some of the situations and realize that they are not alone. Partly, because writing about my life forces me to focus on choices both good and bad and to learn from them while I am still able to make changes.
Whether you identify with my experiences or not, every individual has Christmas Day memories. I have learned that while I miss the commercial and familial aspects of Christmas, it is not the end of the world to be alone with Christ on Christmas. In fact, it may be the best gift of all. I have learned that I cannot teach anyone these lessons; they must learn them for themselves. I have learned that I cannot change the inevitable. I can only adjust and move on. I have learned that one bad day, even on Christmas, does not make a life.
My feelings about Christmas these days are a combination of sadness and wisdom acquired over the years. First and foremost Christmas is about my Lord, but I would not mind experiencing some of the happier times again. There is little to compare with watching the joy of a child opening a gift or a hug from a mother, father, brother, sister, and yes even a mother-in law. For one day each year we all stop and at least think about the spirit of the holiday. This exercise can only help make the other 364 days better.
Christ is a gift and the gifts we receive are only reminders of the one precious gift from God. To receive a gift is pleasurable. In giving is where the real joy springs up into our hearts. As much as I like to receive presents, nothing fills my heart more than to find the perfect gift for someone and watch him or her as they open it. When you know they are pleased, your heart sings. I think that is what Christmas is about. When we open the gift of Christ and realize it is the perfect gift, Godís heart sings.
Jesus was born in a stable...Not exactly the Ritz. His parents had to flee for fear of his life quickly after his birth. I would not say this is a description of the best day ever. However, Jesus was born and because of His birth the world changed. Whether you see Jesus as a great man, a Prophet, or a Savior, his birth changed the world and continues to change it today. You have journeyed with me through my Christmases to experience some good and some very disappointing stories. While the good stories were fun and I am glad to have the memories, it is the worst of my Christmases that have impacted me the most. These have been life altering. It is on these Christmas mornings that I have met Christ on the road and we walked together for a while. Now that is Christmas!
WISHING YOU A SAFE AND HAPPY HOLIDAY SEASON!