I blatantly stole my favorite holiday tradition from one of my favorite people in the whole world: my sister-in-law Nancy. Nancy is very creative, and a great multi-tasker – valuable skills when you’re raising five kids on a tight budget. She approached Christmas like a general strategizing a war. Money was squirreled away all year long in a Christmas club. Newspaper circulars were combed for bargains to be purchased and hidden, often months and months in advance of the holiday. She baked and froze cookies, made pounds of the best homemade fudge ever, and somehow managed to decorate the inside and outside of her house, seemingly without breaking a sweat. Don’t ask me how, but she also managed to throw a family party on Christmas Eve and whip up an unbelievable Christmas dinner, too. I’m worn out just thinking about it. And all of this without even a trace of Martha Stewart-esque smugness. Seriously, she’s wonderful.
Which brings me to my favorite holiday tradition. Every Christmas Eve, shortly before bedtime, as my nieces and nephews tore around the house, there would be a sudden thump or clatter of noise on the front porch. There might even be the sound of sleigh bells jingling in the night. The kids would tumble out the front door into the cold dark and there, in front of them, would be five sets of beautiful, brand-new Christmas pajamas. Dropped there by Rudolph, as Santa passed overhead to make the first of his many deliveries, these were the pajamas destined to star in that year’s Christmas morning photos. The kids, thrilled and awestruck, couldn’t wait to put them on. Rudolph’s pajamas were proof of Santa, proof that Christmas was almost here at last.
I played helper a few times during college. I’d park my noisy old VW bug a block or so away, and sneak up to the house on foot. The pajamas would be tucked in a bag beneath some shrubs, along with a few carrots for the reindeer, and a string of bells. I’d carefully and arrange the pjs on the porch, take a few big bites out of the carrots before strewing them about and then, grabbing up all the evidence, shake the bells like crazy and run for a hiding spot in a neighboring yard.
There I’d watch the scene unfold: the wonder on their faces, the delighted smiles of my older brother and his wife. Then the door would close, and though I could still see them through the picture window, their shouts and giggles couldn’t be heard. I vividly remember the last year I did Christmas pajamas for Nancy. I knew I‘d be moving away soon, and stood in the freezing dark for a long time watching my brother’s house. Seeing his family joyful and snug amid the twinkling lights and colorful chaos of Christmas, I got a lump in my throat. I was happy for my brother - he’d made for himself the kind of family and home we’d never known. And yet sad at the same time, sad in ways I couldn’t articulate then. The scene in front of me was humble and unremarkable, and all the more precious for it. And, like most precious things, terribly fragile.
Now that I have children of my own, Rudolph comes to our house every Christmas Eve, right on schedule. It’s as thrilling for Olivia and Caramia as it was for their now-grown cousins. I’ve added a few touches of my own, like glitter sprinkled over the entire scene for an extra bit of dazzle. Lacking a reliable helper nearby, I’ve had to improvise and just sort of pretend to “hear” something outside before the sending the girls to investigate. But that doesn’t matter. If I had a million years, I could never grow tired of the amazed expression on Caramia’s face, or of the way Olivia declares, “I knew it! I just knew Rudolph would remember us!” It’s funny, because like Nancy, I now do the tree and the decorations and the dinner and by golly, even the cookies – sometimes. But those few minutes spent shivering on the front porch are what transform an otherwise typical winter evening into something more. Nightgowns, a few carrots, a handful of glitter…who could have imagined that such simple things might possess such enormous Christmas magic?