It’s almost 11 pm on Christmas Eve. I have managed to stay smiling and positive all day, despite what, truthfully, have been very minor setbacks. Packages didn’t arrive. Things didn’t get wrapped. Numbers of gifts were uneven. But it’s all good. I’m “hello.”

But I’m not. I miss my mom. This is technically my first Christmas without her, but my last Christmas when Chicago was still home was 1997. I’ve spent nearly 20 years wishing her Merry Christmas on the phone, or waking up in a hotel room, or celebrating Christmas with her days later, or months earlier. So the day on the calendar isn’t really what’s getting to me.

I grew up in a household of tradition. Part of it was our strong, Irish (ahem) heritage. Looking back on it now, a large part of it is how much we were all suffering from anxiety and used our traditions to help us cope with that. But we didn’t know that back then. Heck, it’s only really hitting me now that this is the most likely explanation.

Christmas traditions in my family- in no particular order:

• The smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Mom’s special recipe from that small French town, Tollhouse

• A magazine and a bag of candy in our stockings, which would be tied with curling ribbon to the top of the metal railing that kept us from falling from the 1st floor to the basement.

• Hanging our own star ornaments on the tree every year. We each had one. Of course, it eventually became a competition to see who could hide theirs the best.

• Waking up and the very first thing we would look for would be who had the biggest present. It was always my younger brother, Jason. Always.

• Decoding Mom’s tag “system.” A tag that said “Love, Mom and Dad” could be anything- even the socks and underwear we were threatened with every year for not making a list. “WITH love” meant it was our big present. “With MUCH love” meant it was something having to do with the big present, but not the present itself, but must be opened after the big present.

• The penguin in the nativity scene. Mom had so many Christmas and winter tchotchkes (yup, it’s a word AND it’s spelled right) in the house, it was hard to avoid them- the Nutcracker and the walnuts we were not supposed to touch (though Dad always did and it drove her crazy), her needlepoint/crochet/cross-stitch holiday designs, and the styrofoam igloo with the penguin stuck on top with a toothpick. One day we were horsing around and we broke the penguin off the top. We tried to glue it back on, but it wouldn’t work. Finally, we just hid the penguin in the nativity scene, right next to the camel with no legs and the 3 wise men. She didn’t notice until she was putting everything away on January 3 (every year- the day after Dad’s birthday). She was….displeased. And yet, that penguin lived there every Christmas thereafter.

• Opening one present before breakfast. Then having to show willpower beyond our years to wait for the rest. Because we didn’t often get to have a big, hot breakfast like that, mom and dad would take their time. It was worse when Christmas fell on a Sunday, because it was one present before breakfast, one present before church, and THEN the rest.

• The cardboard fireplace at the top of the stairs. I don’t know how many years we had that thing, but it seemed very important at the time. I think we thought that’s how Santa got in.

• Christmas Eve at Grandma Ashum’s with the entire extended family. Mom, the aunts and Gram all cooking upstairs. Grandpa in his chair watching television and yelling for Gram. Eating downstairs on the ping-pong table (which was 2 giant pieces of green plywood and a net on top of the pool table) because it was the only place that would fit Gram, her three kids, their spouses, and the 10 children between them. Watching for Rudolph out the back (front) porch window and getting a little freaked out when we would see the red light in the sky.

• Watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” so often that we could quote the last 15 minutes word for word. We would watch it on one channel, then flip to another channel that was showing it, and watch until the end. Repeat. Annoy. Repeat. Whaddya know about that? Merry Christmas!

• Christmas ham. That just popped into my head. That’s what we had for dinner every Christmas. Ham. I think it was the kind from a can. But I remember that mom did a criss-cross thing on it and put a honey-mustard glaze. I would copy this the first time I would ever cook dinner for a guy.

• Mom always apologizing for how “lean” our Christmas would be that year, and then we would wake up and the living room would look like Santa had vomited all over it. Every year, no matter how little money there was, our parents would nearly kill themselves to make sure that we got everything we wanted. And there was always, ALWAYS something we didn’t put on a list- something we didn’t think they even knew we wanted.

I have kept many of these traditions in my family. Some work, some don’t. Some we’ve adapted to fit our family and the times. We made cookies this year, but I didn’t get to smell them and McKayla didn’t even like them. The stockings are filled exactly like they were when I was a kid, but they’re laying on the TV stand- and they include a stocking for my niece, one for her boyfriend and one for the son I never knew I wanted 🙂 Penguins are still big. Mine was in my “Bedford Falls” village (my version of a nativity scene) until I brought it to school to insert subtly into our set for “It’s a Wonderful Life” (passing that on to my kids and my “kids,”) and he disappeared. Used the tag system on presents for each of the girls.

There will be no “Oh, honey, I miss you guys so much” from my mom tomorrow. No tears in her voice. No story about how silly her doggies are being. But she’s here. She’s in my heart and in my family.

Love you, Mom.

Merry Christmas.

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