Jack Taylor: Memories of family Christmas celebrations
Christmas in the Taylor household when us kids were growing up was a family affair.
Decorations were unpacked from their nonholiday season storage, where they had been lovingly stowed the prior January. We raced around the house the day after Thanksgiving carefully, or not so carefully, placing our favorites in their proper places. It was my job to tease my sisters about their choices of where they placed those prized decorations.
“John Jr.! Leave your sisters alone!” was heard at various times throughout the day. I was John Jr. only when Mom wanted to be sure I was paying attention.
After Thanksgiving weekend, us kids returned to school and Mom took that opportunity to move the decorations to places of her choosing. We all knew that was going to happen, so we were never too attached to our earlier choices.
Christmas was Mom’s time, and my sisters and I chose to pretend we didn’t notice that things had been moved. Just for fun, I would surreptitiously move one or two items to different spots in the house before leaving for school. Invariably, they were back to Mom’s chosen spot before the day ended, along with her classic smirk in my direction to let me know she knew.
Christmas Eve was family time — just our immediate family. No friends. No other relatives. Just us. No exceptions.
It started with a light dinner. After dinner, we all piled into the family car for a half-hour ride to the Church of St. Francis in downtown Philadelphia. This was not our parish church, but it was Mom’s choice for Christmas Eve. The church was built in the early 1800s and is a magnificent cathedral with an altar made with Italian marble and gold leaf. Mass was said in Latin, as had been done for centuries. The choir belted out Gregorian chants in addition to the hymns of the season. This was home for Mom. I’ll always remember the look of pure peace on my mother’s face during that Mass.
After Mass, we would all pile back into the car for the ride home. Mom had the most serene look on her face as Dad carefully navigated the city streets. My sisters and I sat in the back seat trying not to let our excitement about Santa overtake the moment. The ride seemed to take forever, but eventually we were home, racing up the basement steps to our spots around the tree. Once everyone was situated, Mom would signal the start of gift opening which, for me as the oldest sibling, was my cue to begin. First, us kids. Then Mom and Dad. Laughter, tears, hugs — we had it all!
Once the last gifts were opened, usually Dad’s, we retired to the dining room for something that happened only at Christmas: Mom’s homemade Swedish tea ring. A flaky crust wrapped around her secret ingredients that included raisins, nuts and cinnamon and lightly glazed with a cream-cheese icing. There was coffee for the adults, and the kids had milk with a couple of tablespoons of coffee to help us feel grown up.
The laughter continued, and Mom and Dad seemed more relaxed than they had been throughout the days leading up to Christmas.
Christmas Day brought on a whole different celebration.
Mom and Dad had brothers and sisters, all of whom lived in the Philadelphia metro area. For us, Christmas dinner alternated families. One year, it was Dad’s side of the family: his mother, four brothers, their spouses and kids. The next, it was Mom’s side. A much smaller tribe, but a tribe nonetheless. Dad was the youngest of his siblings, so all my cousins on that side of the family were older than me, some significantly. Mom was the oldest of her siblings, so those cousins were younger, some significantly.
No one on either side of the family had a dining room table big enough to seat everyone, so us kids sat at a separate table. Although she never said anything about it, my mother hated that, especially when celebrating with her in-laws. She wanted her kids to be a valued part of the celebration, and every Christmas Eve, she made sure that happened.
Longtime Summit County resident Jack Taylor and his wife, Ann Marie Damian, have lived in Heeney since 1989.
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