The year was 1961. Sixty years ago, to be exact. There was a small rectangular box wrapped under the Christmas tree. The tag said to Granddaddy from Pee Wee.
Pee Wee was my first great dog. She came to our house as a puppy when I was in the first grade. Granddaddy was my maternal grandfather, Joe Beall. Each Christmas for the next 19 years, the same box was wrapped under the tree. The box was full of chocolate covered cherries, which both my grandfather and my dog loved.
Bud was my next great dog, and he was eventually followed by Harry, the greatest dog of all. Each year, whether there was a dog in the house and even after my grandfather passed away, the chocolate covered cherries made their way under the tree. It was a tradition.
Long after my grandfather and my three great dogs have gone to their reward, I still remember that tradition. I am not sure that anyone really loved the cherries that much. It was just part of Christmas, as much as turkey, cranberry sauce, and cornbread dressing.
We celebrate Christmas first and foremost because it is the birthday of Christ. It is a holiday recognized around the world, whether you are a Christian or not. It is also the single most important holiday of the year for families traveling and gathering. In my 67 years, I can not remember a single Christmas when I was not around at least part of my family.
Other traditions come to mind as I anticipate the special day. Food is certainly part of the family gathering tradition. We always have turkey, though it is not the favorite meat of a single person in our extended family. I always think it is there so it can be used for leftover sandwiches, slathered in mayonnaise between two slices of white bread.
Casseroles are a big part of our Christmas meals. As a child we would have English Pea Casserole and Field Peas. These were later replaced by Hashbrown Casserole, Veg-All Casserole, and even Pineapple Casserole.
A Sweet Potato Casserole, with more sugar than a pitcher of sweet tea, always brings to mind my Grandmother Catharine. It was the only sweet potato I would eat for the first twenty-five years of my life. Dotted with small marshmallows, it was guaranteed to be on my plate for the second and third helpings.
Our family opened their presents one at a time. You had to hold each one up so everyone could see it. My grandmother insisted that you had a piece of paper so you could write your “thank you” notes. That is a tradition that has mostly slipped by the wayside, to almost no one’s dismay.
We have always eaten on our finest China and crystal for Christmas Dinner. If you are not going to use it now, then when? A few pieces have been broken by the kids over the years, but then an adult would also occasionally let a fragile piece slip through their hands as well.
Some traditions are just between a couple of people. Our daughters always slept together on Christmas Eve, a heart-warming memory even now. Santa always seems to remember which people like Banana Laffy Taffy in their stocking. The elves must always be busy making green and red M&Ms, which seem to be loved by all.
As a child, my brother and I always received fireworks, including the infamous M-80s and Cherry Bombs. It was a time for new baseball gloves, shotgun shells, and the dreaded “new clothes”. Let’s face it, most kids do not want “new clothes” from Santa.
We played with boxes more than toys. We could never get enough marbles. I received a dozen pocketknives from Santa over the years. Our first bikes were used. My first record player was previously owned by my uncle and was painstakingly repainted by my mother in orange and blue.
I guess as I think back, we have both memories and traditions. The Christmas gifts of my youth were much different than what my grandchildren experience. Not better, just different. But the family time and the gathering around the table, that is something that binds you over time. Over generations.
The Christmas prayer was given by my grandmother, not my grandfather. Later both my father and mother shared that honor. A generation later, it is often given by my brother or myself at large family gatherings. I do not remember the words, but I remember the experience of a family prayer while I was holding my grandparents’ hands. In the blink of an eye, I find myself holding my own grandchildren’s hands. A blessing within a blessing.
This Christmas, for the first time in many years, there will be a small rectangular box under the tree. When one of my grandchildren opens it, I will tell the story of my grandfather and my first great dog. They may remember the story and they may not, but I will. I have always remembered.
As you celebrate this Christmas, offer that prayer remembering a child born in a manger that changed the world. Whether surrounded by family or alone, take a moment to remember the traditions you have shared with your family and friends. They are treasures as precious as any ornament on your tree.
Merry Christmas to one and all!
Dan Ponder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org