Making Christmas memories

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Christmastime when I was a kid consisted mostly of waiting and waiting for the moment when we could finally open our gifts. That and putting up with aunts and uncles and grandparents, many of whom seemed incredibly old and stodgy.

It was customary back then to teach children how to sing old Christmas melodies. This was followed by the torture of forcing them to croon these tunes in front of an audience. I was a reluctant vocalist and would sing only after being threatened.

“You’d better sing or else,” our music teacher would warn us. I didn’t know what “or else” entailed but assumed from her tone that it involved something much worse than singing in public.

Our family’s Christmas traditions included spending Christmas Eve at Grandpa and Grandma Hammer’s house. Our parents expended oceans of effort to convince their eight kids to quit our warm, snug farmhouse and pile into our cold, drafty station wagon for the half-hour drive to our grandparents’ house.

Grandpa and Grandma’s home would be stuffed to the rafters with people and food. Wondrous aromas infused the old farmhouse as steam rose from a bevy of bub-bling pots. To my great pleasure — and the deep consternation of many others — one of the pots held a slab of lutefisk that was large enough to choke a polar bear.

While waiting for the food, we would horse around with our cousins until we were sternly commanded to settle down. We would closely examine the Christmas tree, paying special attention to the mound of gifts at its base. I was fascinated by the candle-shaped lights that contained a clear fluid and burped an endless stream of bubbles. Where did the bubbles come from? And where did they go?

When supper finally landed on the table, we tore into it like infantrymen fresh off a 50-mile march. One could lose a finger while reaching for the lefse.

After supper we had to visit, which was adult-speak for “sit around and yak about old times.”

Who cared about old times? We were children of the Space Age. We didn’t want to hear about the past. After all, we would soon be zooming around in our flying cars and strapping on our jetpacks. It was difficult to stay focused on the 21st century while keeping company with people who had been born in the 19th century.

After making us wait several agonizing minutes, we were finally allowed to open our presents. This was followed shortly by a fresh round of horsing around. Grandpa would decide that this was an opportune moment to share a shot of Christmas wine, which was of a purple Mogen David vintage.

If a kid were deemed old enough, he or she might be offered a small sample. It was only a thimbleful, but that tiny taste of wine made us feel like we were part of the grownup world.

The wine also made us extremely sleepy, which caused our parents to declare that it was time to go home. This was probably Grandpa’s plan all along. He was a cagey old guy.

We didn’t realize it in the moment, but we were enjoying some of the best things this world has to offer.

My wife and I are friends with a couple who graciously invites a large group of folks into their home for a pre-Christmas gathering. The house, owned by Jerry and Judy Cooley, was built in 1908 and hasn’t been afflicted by any major remodeling. It has thus retained its original charm.

Many of those who gather at the Cooley Christmas party are gray-haired grandparents, folks who probably seem incredibly old and stodgy to the youngsters in attendance. The Cooley home becomes stuffed to the rafters with people and the wondrous aromas of a potluck supper. The creaky old house resonates with the buzz of conversation as vast quantities of visiting takes place.

Someone will sit at the piano, and the notes of traditional Christmas tunes fill the air. Childhood training kicks in, causing many of the assembled to sing along. Eyes mist over as the singers recall bygone days and all the people who are no longer with us. Where did the years go?

A person peering into the Cooley home might find it difficult to determine if it’s 1923 or 2023. That is, if it weren’t for the occasional photo being snapped with an iPhone.

No matter how enjoyable the evening might be, cobwebs will begin to creep into my brain, signaling that it’s time to head home. And I’ll say to my wife, “We’d better go before I fall asleep and you have to carry me out to the car.”

Jerry Nelson is a recovering dairy farmer from Volga, South Dakota. He and his wife, Julie, have two sons and live on the farm where Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded over 110 years ago. Jerry works for Dairy Star as a staff writer and ad salesman. Feel free to email him at jerry.n@dairystar.com.

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