It’s such a blessing to be able to say that I had a happy childhood, loved by my parents, and had all my needs met. Like all families, we had flaws, but my memories are mostly of laughter, warmth, silliness, quality time, and working together. We created wonderful family traditions that included singing “Happy Birthday” in Portuguese (my father grew up in Brazil) and passing on the red bonnet to each daughter born. But easily my favorite family tradition was Tree Night, and I carry it on with my six children.
As a military family, we moved often and never lived near our relatives, which made it even more crucial to create consistent, lasting traditions as a family. We weren’t going to Grandma’s house for Christmas dinner or exchanging gifts with cousins, and we had to make new friends fast and often. But Tree Night happened in Hawaii when it was 83 degrees, or in Indiana during a blizzard.
Before Tree Night happened each year, my dad would get the tree down from the attic and set it up, usually spending several hours being frustrated that our strings of lights didn’t work. (Can it really be Christmas if there are no bumps along the way?) Once the tree was prepped, my siblings and I would help by unpacking the boxes of ornaments, laying them all out on our dining room table. Typically we’d have our favorite Christmas music playing in the background and candles lit.
My parents would then present each child with a new ornament for that year, and they would explain why they had chosen that particular ornament for that child. Our eyes would light up when we saw ours, and we rushed to put our new ornament on the tree. With all the new ones hung, we all pitched in to put the rest of the ornaments on the tree.
I grew up with a wide variety of ornaments, made out of wood, glass, fabric, or paper. We had music notes, log cabins, horses, polar bears, Santas, manger scenes, and angels. As we decorated, we reminisced about the history of different ornaments, like the homemade ones my mom sewed during one of my dad’s deployments. “Remember this one?!” one of us would yell as memories flooded. At times, my mom had to “encourage” us to get on with the decorating instead of all the chatter.
Finally, the tree was done, all ornaments properly or improperly hung, and we settled in for our favorite part of Tree Night. Blankets were laid out on the living room floor, and we would wait expectantly for my mom to bring in the plates full of donuts and mugs of steaming hot chocolate. That’s right: Tree Night was also Sugar Fest, and we loved it! There were definitely some agonizing decisions about whether to take a cream-filled first or a jelly, knowing that our second choice might not be available on the second pass. Such are the dilemmas of childhood.
And then, while we ate and sipped, my parents began to recount the memories of every Christmas since they married. We loved hearing the stories of their early years, of how they were so poor they couldn’t buy real gifts and yet they had happy celebrations anyway. As the recollections moved from year to year, we anticipated hearing about the first Christmas after each of us was born, and we’d give a cheer to punctuate. Gifts received, trips taken, sicknesses suffered, separations endured, and holiday traditions carried on were all remembered and discussed. Often we’d correct our parents when our young minds had clearer memories, and they corrected us when our memories had been “creatively improved.”
Obviously, these trips through Christmases past got longer and longer each year. Sometimes the littlest kids would squirm, struggling to sit still while we talked about my parents’ 18th Christmas together. But we’d just hand them another donut to keep them quiet.
And so, in 1997, Tree Night made its debut in the Slaughter home. My kids have loved it from the start, and they begin asking when Tree Night will be soon after Halloween is over. Now my husband is the one muttering under his breath about the lights, and my kids are laying out the ornaments. I deliver the sugary treats and then lead the discussion, starting with the Christmas that I was dating my future husband. Last week we had Tree Night 2017, and we lingered over memories from the past 21 Christmases.
Traditions are good enough in themselves; they provide a stability, framework, and anchor to childhood. But to me, Tree Night also serves to remind us where we’ve been, where we are, and that no matter where we’re going, we’re going there together. It provides context and produces gratefulness. And it’s really fun. I’d love for my kids to continue this tradition with their families someday, but more than that, I hope they have some kind of tradition that glues them together. We all need that.
How about you, Mama? What is your favorite Christmas tradition?