By Heather Mullinix
It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and it has nothing to do with all those presents wrapped up with ribbons and bows under the tree.
While it feels good to give to those we love during the holidays, the most important thing we can give those we love is our time and attention. As you look back to Christmases past, I’d wager the memories that come flooding back have more to do with the people who were there instead of the gifts that were unwrapped.
Oh sure, I had those “signature” gifts. There was the Cabbage Patch Doll, Birdie Belva, waiting on the fireplace hearth one year, right next to my sister’s. Those were all the rage in the mid-’80s and my sister and I had both wanted one for months. We spent most of the day playing together with our dolls.
Then there were the matching pink bicycles waiting. Santa worked hard to get both those put together and under the tree before we decided to rise and shine at 5:30 in the morning. My poor parents were harassed until they let us take them for a spin that cold winter day. We made a few loops around the yard and then headed back to the house. But when the weather warmed up, those bikes were our transportation to and fro, making a well-worn path between our house and the neighbors up the street were we often played.
That Santa was a smart elf. He always seemed to bring my sister and I similar gifts back then. I suppose he didn’t want to fuel any sibling rivalry fires. Those gifts also added new ways for us to play nice together. Sure, I remember the presents but, more importantly, I remember the time those presents allowed me to spend with my sister and the adventures they made possible.
As I grew up, the presents changed from toys to clothes or music or books (always a favorite) to the gift card that works everywhere, a little fun money to spend on something I needed or wanted, but that my family knew I probably wouldn’t spend on myself. I’ve searched high and low looking for those “perfect” gifts for those on my list, though several have become almost impossible to shop for. My sister delights in the surprise of gift giving. When she asks what I’d like for Christmas, I try to be specific. “I want this,” I’ll say. She’ll nod, go about her business and then, when our family Christmas comes around, she’ll be so excited to see me open her gift because I am usually completely surprised. I’d like to say I do the same for her, but I prefer to get her what she tells me she wants. The last few years, she’s asked for custom stationary because my sister loves to send heart-felt, hand-written notes to people all year long. From a thank you card for stopping by and taking her to lunch when you’re in the area to a “Hey, I enjoyed talking to you on the phone the other day.” They’re all sent with her impeccable handwriting and stamped. I suppose I continue to get her the stationary because I know I’ll be on the receiving end of one of those cards and they really do brighten a day.
Christmas can be such a hectic time it can be hard to find a time when your whole family can get together, break bread and share the holiday. It can be especially hard if your extended family is as extended as mine. When I was young, we’d have several Christmases. There was, of course, Christmas morning at home, and later, we’d have Christmas with the neighbors. Christmas eve was often at my Granny and Poppa Wright’s house, and Christmas afternoon was at Grandma and Grandpa Mullinix’s. Ma Beaty would welcome her ever-growing brood anytime during the holidays, and you were never sure which of the far-flung family would be waiting when you arrived at her house.
Everywhere we went, there was hugs and laughter. And food. Oh my gosh! The food! Thanksgiving would usually involved three Thanksgiving dinners, and you always tried to leave a little room in your stomach so you could eat at the next stop. With Christmas events spread out a bit more, you could indulge a bit more at the dining room table. There was always plenty and there was always something delicious — from the ham and turkey to chicken and dumplings and cornbread, to the dessert table piled high with cake and brownies and pie.
After we’d had plenty of food, the cousins and I would be off playing games like hide and seek, Clue, Trivial Pursuit or a “friendly” game of Rook. Rook is, was and always will be serious business in my family. I learned to play from my great-grandmother, Ma Beaty. She didn’t cheat but Ma would sandbag the bidders, letting them run the bid up high while she held all the trumps. I found the rest of the family wasn’t nearly as tolerant of such behavior in an upstart youngun as they were in the family matriarch and I would often be banished from the card table. On the other side, we’ve taken to playing a serious card game called idiot bridge, and it’s much harder than it sounds. It’s amazing the delight one can take in causing their niece to go set hand after hand.
It’s harder to get everyone together these days. All my playmates from way back when are grown now, and many have in-laws to coordinate plans around, and they have children of their own. We’ve spread out to a much wider area than those 499 square miles of Fentress County. While I used to see my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins every few weeks growing up, it’s more often to be every few months now. That’s why I so look forward to the holidays and the family reunion. Seeing everyone, catching up on what’s been happening, holding the newest members of the family and sharing laughs and a good meal — that’s what Christmas means to me.
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Heather Mullinix is assistant editor of the Crossville Chronicle. Her column is published each Tuesday. She may be reached at email@example.com.