I remember this time of year with a smile. My memory of it is warm and happy, a surprise someone created just for me, to make me happy. I was important. Special. This day was special. I was wrapped in love.
I mean, every single Christmas was special. My parents didn’t have a lot, but they had enough. Dad was a steel laborer and mom was a homemaker. Both of them, rooted in tradition, still spoke their native languages (German and Slovak) in addition to English. My mom —who had come to America from Czecho-Slovakia with her mother at the age of 3 — was shy and quiet in public. Our home and family were everything to her. My dad, who worked side jobs doing electrical and construction work, was stern but fair and unbiased when it came to ethnicity, culture, and background. We used the same glass ornaments for our tree for as long as I can remember. After we bought a stereo in 1967, I began to look forward to my dad’s purchase of the annual Firestone Christmas Album, which we would play on repeat while baking cut-outs and kipfels and Palacinka.
These traditions — this feeling of being loved through simple acts and family connections — became deeply embedded in my psyche. I think I’ve spent my adult life trying to recreate that warmth and love I felt for everyone else. I created memories that seem locked within the beauty of a crystal snow globe, forever preserved.
One particular Christmas, I must have been about 8 years old and wasn’t expecting much. I don’t remember even having a list of things I wanted from Santa. But I awoke to a selection of gifts that astonished me — Barbie Dolls, the Suzie Homemaker oven, a toy ironing board, and a Sears Roebuck functional toy vacuum cleaner. It was magical. And I knew these things came from my parents — not Santa. My mom and dad had wanted to create the most wonderful time of year for me, the youngest of five, the last of their crew, and the last Christmas they would play Santa. It was an astonishing display of love and one I always remembered — not so much because of the things they gave me, but because of the effort they went through to make that wonderful memory for me.
Years later, my husband would enthusiastically join me in recreating that sensation for our own two daughters. I remember my mom and dad joining us in our small home on Christmas morning as my daughters unwrapped gift after gift and swirled around a mini-kitchen, sleds, games, dolls, and more. My mother asked me, “Why do you go so overboard? Didn’t we do enough for you?”
I wondered over her disappointment for years, questioning why I was obsessed with creating the perfect Christmas every year — from the garlands hanging everywhere to the candles in the windows and the seven foot tall real evergreen adorned with ornaments I had collected since I was a child. It worried me that my need to give and give and give to my children made my mother feel like less of something.
But I never stopped indulging in Christmas for me or for anyone I loved.
And then, in the year 1999, for the first time in nine years I was creating a Christmas for my daughters by myself. I had been divorced that previous summer. I was in a new home in a new town, with an empty bank account thanks to the high cost of divorce attorneys. Friends had helped me move and restock my kitchen with dishes and basic cookware. I had a used Christmas tree and an empty fireplace and half of the Christmas tree ornaments I had been collecting. The girls’ dad had the other half.
It seemed bleak. But I was also proud of what it had taken me to start over. And I was determined to create a Christmas wonderland of some sort for my 6- and 9-year-old daughters — and for me. Trips to thrift shops and the dollar store outfitted my mantle with stockings and garlands. For outdoor decorations, I wrapped my moving boxes in paper and bows and stacked those on the front porch and trained a spotlight on them. A small bonus from working helped me to afford Christmas presents. A $35 boom box and a couple of discounted Christmas music CDs spread Christmas music throughout the house. A splurge on cookie sheets helped to carry on the traditional cookie baking, which provided gifts for my neighbors and friends.
Then, the week before Christmas, I went to Kmart to buy my daughters new pajamas. We had to have my tradition of “cute” Christmas morning photos. That year, while strolling through Kmart, my older daughter, then 9, suggested that I get a pair of pajamas too. And so I did. I splurged. We all got matching pajamas. They weren’t anything special — just your basic flannel button-downs. But it was a fun thing between just us three girls.
And that started the tradition.
Every Christmas the three of us girls would get matching pajamas for Christmas Day. It grew to a privilege where one of the girls would get their turn to choose the pajamas, usually much to someone else’s chagrin since we didn’t share the same fashion sense. The rule became “no one opens presents unless they’re wearing their Christmas PJs” — which became increasingly challenging as we rotated who got to choose the pajamas. The year Kayla picked polka dot fuzzy PJs with a ruffle trim, I thought my now mature Chelsea would die. But we all wore them Christmas morning.
Somehow this goofy little “inside joke” that my daughters and I shared has taken on a life of its own. As our family has grown, we’ve included Chelsea’s wife Megan and their son Jadyn, my boyfriend John, and, this past year, Kayla’s boyfriend Alex, and even my ex-husband who joins us Christmas morning to watch our grandson open gifts. In 2017, all of us had matching T-shirts announcing the fact that our Christmas gift would be a trip to Disney the following summer. Except Alex’s t-shirt said, “I don’t do matching shirts…” in a color and design that exactly matched the rest of ours. Even the dogs had matching beds.
I thought about stopping this tradition now that everyone is grown and out of the house. But — oddly — the kids look forward to doing this each year. We’ve already ordered matching shirts for the whole crew for this year too. Apparently family PJs have taken on a whole new life in retail and if we don’t buy early, it will be impossible to get something that matches and fits all of us!
We can’t stop now. Each year, my friends around the globe look forward to seeing our Christmas fashion shared on social media.
And each year, it’s a reminder that Christmas isn’t in the garlands hung by the fireplace or the ornaments hung on the tree, but rather in the people we love and the things we do for each other to make each other happy. For me, my family indulges me in wearing matching pajamas.
This year I finally realized what I should have told my mom all those years ago when she worried that she had not given me enough as a child. On the contrary, mom, you created such wonderful, perfect family memories that all my life I have wanted to recreate that feeling of warmth, excitement, surprise, and love for everyone else.
Sometimes, it’s a team effort.