"Bring a happy memory from a Christmas past," instructed the invitation to the Bishops' annual Christmas party.
I searched my memory for a splashy story that would impress the other party guests, but my mind kept coming back to the one thing I loved best about Christmas: tramping out with my grandmother to her woods to select and chop down the tree. We always returned home with the scrawniest "Charlie Brown Christmas" tree we could find, threw cotton balls at its sagging branches, hung candy canes on its tired limbs and declared it the most beautiful tree ever.
My husband's favorite memory was just as simple. George recalled that when he was very young his mother created her own Christmas ornaments. She cut out used Christmas cards, taped aluminum foil to the back of each cutout, and then strung the homemade ornaments from the ceiling and on the trees. George was in awe of these beautiful creations.
We were both surprised to learn that our favorite memories were not elaborate, but evocative of a simpler time in our lives when money wasn't a necessity for creating a special memory. Most of the memories shared by guests at the Bishops' party carried the same theme.
"Mom, tell the story about the orange," was a familiar chant in the home of Dean Kieffaber when he was growing up. He and his four siblings begged their mom to retell the story of her favorite (and only) childhood Christmas present, a perfect piece of fruit. The children thought it was wildly funny that their mom could cherish the memory of an orange. They loved to picture her savoring each bit of the luscious fruit until the last sticky morsel was nothing but a memory.
"I was just talking to an older gentleman who had an orange story, too," chimed in another guest. Unlike Dean's mom, who actually enjoyed consuming the orange, this gentleman couldn't bear to part with his prized possession. He kept the orange, admiring it each day, until it shriveled into nothing.
Barbara Friend fondly recalls the Christmas when she and her husband could not afford a tree or gifts. She gathered pine branches after a wind storm and tied them together. For presents, she wrapped borrowed library books and lovingly placed them under her makeshift tree.
Jim McClendon loves the childhood memory of his father taking him to the fireplace to make sure that the flue was open wide enough to accommodate Santa.
While listening to these stories, I realized that ingenuity and sharing, not expensive gifts and gala Christmas fetes, were the common threads that wove special memories.
I couldn't help wondering what special Christmas memories our 4-year old daughter, Cynthia, will cherish as an adult. Conscious of my humble upbringing in a small town in West Virginia, I often find myself overcompensating. In an attempt to create special Christmas memories for Cynthia, I have orchestrated elaborate parties, accompanied her to lavish productions of "The Nutcracker," and taken her to the Christmas breakfast at Bullocks, a childhood extravaganza complete with Santa, life-size dolls and teddy bears working the room, festive decorations, and a puppet show.
My den has quickly filled with not one, but dozens of presents, in hopes that one will be the prized gift she cherished forever.
I am soon exhausted by my efforts to make everything special and realize that, as a result, nothing is special.
But, in spite of myself, Cynthia has a cherished memory of a Christmas past. It's not the "Nutcracker," the breakfast extravaganza, the trip to Santa's Village, Santa's visit to our home, or last year's coveted singing Ariel mermaid doll that she recalls with childhood enthusiasm.
As we recently drove down St. Albans Road in San Marino, a street lined with massive evergreens festooned in lights, her face brightened as she recalled her favorite Christmas memory. "Mommy, remember when we got out of the car with Meryl and danced down this street in the rain last Christmas?"
"Yes, I sure do remember." And together we talked about the magic we created when we pretended St. Albans Road was the North Pole, a destination we reached on the Polar Express, an imaginary train from a classic children's story. Surrounded by the lights, we held hands and frolicked down the street, splashed in tiny puddles, and felt the raindrops dancing on our cheeks.
We both tingled as we remembered the feeling and I realize that we have a memory in the same league as oranges and homemade ornaments.