ORLANDO — When I was a kid growing up in Fall River, Massachusetts in the 1960s, we had a red and black sleigh in our side yard. It had always been there, as far as I can remember, and around Christmas time, my father would put wrapped packages in it to look like Santa was about to deliver gifts. The boxes were empty, but we kids didn’t know that.
From the bay window in our living room, we looked out onto that grassy yard, and in the winter time, if we got a white Christmas, that sleigh had us even more excited.
I have only fleeting memories of Christmas mornings as a child — getting up one night to discover my parents quietly and surreptitiously wrapping packages in the next room on Christmas Eve, and being far too young to understand what they were up to, to being resentful of a nice gift my older sister got one Christmas morning, and jumping up and down in an empty box yelling in anger. As for that sleigh, it disappeared — and I don’t remember when. My father told me the wood began to rot and so he chopped it up and tossed it away before it fell apart.
By then, I’d moved on to other interests, so it didn’t much matter to me.
Today, my father lives alone in that same house I was born in, but he no longer puts up a tree or decorations — why go through the trouble, he figures, when it’s just him and two cats?
Living in Orlando, I still put up a small tree and place holiday lights on my home, but it isn’t quite the same to look out your window on Christmas Eve and see neighbors walking by in t-shirts on a 70-degree day. Orlando feels more like a permanent summer vacation state than a nostalgic holiday one.
But one thing I love about this season is Christmas Eve. Regardless of where I am, this day takes me back to a time when I felt constantly and unalterably happy. It’s easy to feel 5 years old again today — and not because there are gifts from others under my tree that I can’t wait to open. face it, when you get to middle age, you’re more likely to be shrugging at things you’ve collected in the past and thinking, “Why in the heck did I ever buy this?” and looking to downsize rather than drawing up a long list of new items for Santa to deliver on. Your days of accumulating things are long over. Specialized food and booze are probably top gift items on my list these days.
No, for me, I get swept back on this day for other reasons. I suspect it’s even easier for parents of little kids, or adults with grandchildren to spoil. Seeing their little ones, they can relive their own excitement about getting up on Christmas morning as youngsters. Like I said, for me it’s not about the gifts, so that’s not what I’m nostalgic about.
What I love is going back to that irresistable sense of wonder I felt as a kid on the build up to Christmas Eve — the last day before the big day arrived. Everything at that time seemed perfect — all the holiday lights everywhere, the amazing decorations people in my city would put up, the Christmas shows happening everywhere, the family get-togethers on Christmas Eve, the giant meal awaiting us on Christmas Day.
It never got old, even as I did. And I think as an adult, Christmas Eve is wonderful because it’s a time to just escape into the nostalgic of the season, and forget about mortgage payments, blood pressure bills, and the other stuff that consumes us once the holidays are over.
I went back to Fall River in October to see my father, and although it didn’t feel like the holiday season at that time, I did feel instantly nostalgic for a city I haven’t lived in since 2002. So many great memories came back to me on that trip, I’ve started to wonder if I won’t retire there once my working days are over. Who knows?
But I have fun memories of the holidays as an adult as well. On Christmas Eve, my father and I would get together and drive over to China Royal, a popular restaurant that had the distinction of being the only one open on Christmas Eve. In a heavily Catholic city, Christmas Eve was a solemn time and everything shut down — except for the city’s lone Chinese restaurant. Not surprisingly, it was packed every year.
In Orlando, a city where tourism is king, it’s a shocker to find any restaurants closed on Christmas Eve. You have a lot to pick from. (Although some traditions get revived; I now have Jewish friends who invite me every Christmas Eve to join them for dinner at their favorite local Chinese restaurant.)
I think kids ages 5-7 love Christmas Eve because of how exciting and wonderful that day seems … almost as much as guys like me, adults in their 50s. Life throws a lot at you as you get older, from career challenges to health problems to worries about your future retirement years. It’s nice to have a time of year when we can justify not fretting about all that, when you can allow the “adult” in us to take a break for a few days, and just enjoy reliving what it was like to find these two days so thrilling.
Here’s to every one of us who loves the idea of being happily nostalgic on Christmas Eve, and treasuring every minute of this day, regardless of our age.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Of Cats And Wolves.” Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.