I didn’t realize the change until I described our family’s Christmas traditions to a Jewish friend, but the fact is, Christmas Eve has evolved into the important part of the Christmas celebration, while Christmas Day has dwindled into an afterthought. How did this happen?
When our children were little, everything was about Christmas Day. They were up at the crack of dawn excitingly opening their presents while my wife and I watched half-asleep. Our bleary-eyed attempts to stay awake are obviously funny in the photos of those times. After the presents came a big breakfast, a light lunch, then off to the grandparents for dinner and still more presents, giving and getting.
My fondest childhood memory was when I still believed in Santa Claus. When I went to bed, everything looked like it always did, but when I woke the next morning and peeped down the stairs, the living room was magically transformed. Santa had obviously been there. The tree was set up, all decorated and the lights turned on. The train and miniature houses were arranged underneath. Decorations I had not seen for a year, like the silver reindeer with the missing leg, were everywhere I looked—on the piano, on the radiator cover, on the mantelpiece. Even the familiar furniture was now moved to unfamiliar places. Seeing all that made Santa, the reindeer, and the chimney story easy to believe. Magic was the only explanation.
I remember this only once. From then on, the decorating was no longer secret. I saw the preparations begin the week before. I was older, and I saw the whole process: picking out the one best tree from hundreds, bringing it home tied to the roof of the car, setting it up so the bare spot was hidden, bringing the boxes of decorations down from the attic, arranging the lights and balls. No magic was involved. I was part of the process.
Our own family pattern slowly changed, too, as our children grew older and began sleeping later than we did. Once up, they mostly wanted to be with their friends. We began exchanging gifts on Christmas Eve to free up Christmas Day, and to sleep late—something we all appreciated. We saw this as the modern way. Christmas Day mostly became visiting the grandparents for dinner, but only on my wife’s side about an hour’s drive in rural South Jersey. My parents had already moved to Florida and only got a phone call. That still made for an exhausting day.
The church services changed, too. In my high school days, I remember going to Mass with my Catholic friends on the especially elaborate service of Christmas Day (actually the Midnight Mass that some may consider still part of Christmas Eve). My own family’s Protestant service became increasingly abbreviated. Many choir members and other lay people involved with the service wanted to be home with their families. Even the minister handed over the duties to an assistant as he stressed the importance of being with family on Christmas Day. Guests had to be told the usual service was much better, and they eventually stopped coming. The candlelight Christmas Eve service was the time to bring visitors.
As the grandparents of our children aged, we had them for dinner, and then they were gone. Our children had their own families and were too far away to visit. Traveling at that crowded time of the year was unthinkable. Presents were mailed in November and were opened in far-away homes on Christmas Eve. With no children around, we gave up the intrusion of a tree and simply decorated the living room with greens. The only decorations brought down from the attic now are LED lights for the windows that turn on and off automatically.
If this sounds depressing, it is not anymore. I now volunteer at Longwood Gardens on Christmas Day, where I can enjoy their decorations more fabulous (and tasteful) than even my childhood memories of the displays in Gimbel’s and Wanamaker’s department stores. I get dressed up in what would once be described as my “Sunday best.” All of the staff and visitors are happy and fully into the Christmas spirit. They are delighted at anything I can tell them, any attention I can give. The happiness is symbiotic and contagious. I obviously add to their good cheer as they to mine.
I get thanked dozens of times by staff and visitors. The expensive Porter music box plays Christmas music from stamped out foot-and-a-half brass disks, and I get to wind it every 15 minutes.
Christmas Day has returned as a great day of celebration.