The Spirit of the Season


By Michael J. Cleary

My favorite Christmas tree ornament is a glass Santa whose color has nearly completely faded and is pretty thoroughly worn out.

It’s been on every one of my childhood Christmas trees. It was on my grandparents’ first tree the year they got married. Its faded colors and worn appearance are not that of a “Jolly Old Elf.” Instead, it seems to embody the spirit of Christmases of the past. It has observed my Christmases over the years and all the changes that have taken place, too.

The past two Christmases, the ornament stayed in the box, because I didn’t put up a tree. Christmas came and went those two years without much notice, but those are still Christmas memories just the same. This year, the tree is up, and by some miracle, the old ornament is intact.

As a young child, Christmas held the same magical quality for me as it did for most children. Though we didn’t have a lot of money for extravagant gifts, it didn’t matter. To be honest, I only remember a few Christmas gifts.

My most vivid memories are my mom cooking way too much food and baking far too many cookies. I also vividly remember watching “Dracula” with Bela Lugosi, which WGN played every Christmas Day. It was probably easy programming for a skeleton crew at the station. But if I want to feel really nostalgic on Christmas Day, I’ll put “Dracula” on the TV.

On Christmas Eve, we always went out to my grandparents’ house in Herscher. For years, my aunt gave me a silver dollar, wrapped in a small box. Then, when I got older, it somehow transitioned to a bottle of Old Spice cologne. Looking back on it, this gift of overpowering cologne coincided with me reaching the age at which I may have needed such a product.

My birthday is just about a week before Christmas, but despite popular concern, I never felt cheated in the least. For one thing, everyone in the family remembered it, maybe because the festive mood they were already in brought it to mind.

But another thing that made my birthday special is that we usually did not decorate the Christmas tree until my birthday. Things were more traditional back then. Some families even waited until Christmas Eve to decorate the tree.

As for a birthday cake, my mother would take me to the grocery store, put me in that little seat part of the cart and let me pick one out from the refrigerated case. I would almost invariably pick out a cake with Santa on it. What child wouldn’t want Santa to be part of their birthday? Maybe a secret to not feeling cheated by a Christmas birthday is to feel like somehow the whole thing is for you.

We were a family of five back then. Mom, Dad, my older sister Mary, older brother James, and me. I was the youngest. My sister was the first to leave us, some 25 years ago. Then in 2004, my dad passed, and in 2019, my mom passed away on December 12, exactly one week after her birthday, and one week before mine.

I remember as a kid, figuring out how old I would be at the millennium and thinking it was so far away in time. I wondered about the future and what it would be like. But it never really occurred to me that someday the five of us would only be two of us. Of the original five, it’s just my brother and me, and those past Christmases feel so far away.

Change is inevitable; we can’t control it or stop it. But, we can control how we handle change. My childhood Christmases were a bit hectic. Between orchestrated merriment and having to go to relatives’ houses, and church, too, there wasn’t a lot of time for quiet reflection.

These days, the new normal is being home on my own on Christmas, and I’ll tell you, I kind of like it. I can put on some Christmas music, make myself a little Christmas dinner, take a nice walk, and generally observe the day in a relaxed manner of my choosing.

Media is flooded with movies, images and messages that can make one feel that a proper Christmas is supposed to be a breathtaking combination of “A Christmas Story,” “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It is easy to have the mindset that anything short of that is a sad, pathetic failure.

In reality, those idyllic Christmases we think “everyone else” is having are usually far from idyllic. I like my quiet peaceful Christmas holiday. It’s taken me almost my entire life to get to this point, and I’m liking it very much.

Christmas is different now. Things change. Times change. This year, as I unwrapped that worn-out old glass Santa and hung it on the tree, memories of happy times and sad, the good and the bad, came back to me. Much like the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Present, and Future, too, reminding me that no matter how I keep Christmas, the important thing is to keep it.

Christmas, it seems, is like a glowing candle: Some years, it glows brighter and happier than others, but it is always glowing with the spirit of Christmas, nonetheless.

May you all keep the holiday spirit with a happy heart this season, and may you be blessed with a great New Year.

Michael J. Cleary
Farmers Weekly Review


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