Living on the Gulf Coast, we cannot always depend on the cool nip of autumn to signal the approach of the holidays. Instead, we take our cues from the appearance of the Christmas tree in Bienville Square, the lights that suddenly adorn the houses around town, or the flood of carols issuing from every store. As a child, a hallmark was the Christmas parade, when my cousin and I would load up in the rumble seat of my grandfather’s A-Model Ford and throw candy at the excited crowd.
While Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Christ, it is also about tradition. My mother was a teacher to homebound children and served as part educator, part counselor to countless students. She used to tell parents, “It’s not the fishing pole a child will remember; it’s the time spent fishing.” She was right. When I think back on the Christmases of my childhood I recall the smell of hot apple cider, candy canes hanging from the tree, festive crafts made at school, and being impressed Santa took the time to sit at Bel Air Mall and listen to my wishes. And of course, I remember the anticipation of Christmas morning and the gifts that sat under the tree, teasing me.
My mother, desperate to appease an anxious child, also decided to put one gift in a stocking each of the seven days before Christmas. But at our house, the holiday was always about more than just the presents. My mother considered kindness to others a virtue, so each year we played Santa to the family of one of her students. Most seemed to be dealing with hardships that extended far beyond caring for a special needs child. We received a budget (that we always exceeded) and a list of the family members. Hours were spent shopping and wrapping packages, which we would deliver on Christmas Eve. The experience went a step beyond most charitable acts, because the people were real to me. There was a face that went with a name.
Nowadays, holidays are spent with family at Fish River. We used to indulge in giving gifts to every member of the family, but last year we started a new ritual. As the family has grown and we have all gotten older, we decided that instead of exchanging gifts we would make a family donation. Each person contributes to Little Sisters of the Poor or The Shoulder, two nonprofit organizations that play valuable roles in our community. This new way of giving has brought us back to the heart of what Christmas really means. We cherish our time together, give thanks, and pay forward our good fortune.
With a daughter of my own now, I have a new appreciation for the holidays. As she gets older and more aware of the world around her, I have been thinking about how I will help her define Christmas. We will go to the parade, visit Santa, and see the lights at Bellingrath. The house will be adorned with our handmade crafts and a tree that we will decorate together. I will enjoy baking cookies and experiencing the sheer joy of watching her open her presents. But if she turns out to be spoiled, my hope is that she will be spoiled not by material things, but with experiences. Perhaps, along the way, we will make a few traditions of our own.
All Lit Up
Through December 31 • Magic Christmas in Lights
12401 Bellingrath Gardens Road, Theodore. 973-2217. bellingrath.org
8 a.m. – 9 p.m. More than 3 million lights and the home elegantly decorated home on view. Photos with Santa on weekends and the week of Christmas.
Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder