By Kirby Neumann-Rea • Of the News-Register • 

Family Christmas rituals changing with the times

Rachel Thompson/News-Register##Christmas Annual, 1958, is steeped in sweet nostalgia such as  Memories are Part of Christmas  picture tale, with excerpts such as   ... came the holidays and it took a heap of carryin  to keep the kitchen woodbox full ... but perhaps what came out of the cookstove at Christmas time made it worthwhile...  — Augsburg Press.
Rachel Thompson/News-Register##Christmas Annual, 1958, is steeped in sweet nostalgia such as "Memories are Part of Christmas" picture tale, with excerpts such as " ... came the holidays and it took a heap of carryin' to keep the kitchen woodbox full ... but perhaps what came out of the cookstove at Christmas time made it worthwhile..." — Augsburg Press.
Submitted photo##The late Donald Rea smiles after unwrapping the traveling Rea family gift, “Cher head,” c. 2015.
Submitted photo##The late Donald Rea smiles after unwrapping the traveling Rea family gift, “Cher head,” c. 2015.

 

Guest writer Kirby Neumann-Rea, managing editor at the News-Register, lives in McMinnville with his wife, Lorre. They have sons, Connal, living in Hood River, and Delaney, living in Portland. He’s hosted “wassail” parties but never baked a cookie. His sixth-grade stint as St. Nick was not his last; one year he worked as a department store Santa. He believes Reginald Owen was the definitive Scrooge.

“ ... my thoughts are drawn back, by a fascination I do not care to resist, to my own childhood. I began to consider, what do we all remember best upon the branches of the Christmas Tree of our own young Christmas days, by which we climbed to real life.” – Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Tree”

In the fall of 1984, I was between newspaper jobs. I was living with friends while working at the Meier and Frank deli in downtown Portland.

My youngest brother was in college. Another had recently married. The eldest had started a family and my parents were approaching retirement. Life for each of us was making subtle shifts as we all approached the holidays.

Lives of people in Ethiopia, meanwhile, were in terrible transition. Wrenching poverty had hit the Horn of Africa, and the world’s attention, including that of a group of rock musicians, briefly focused on their plight.

As the “Band Aid” campaign and concerts for Africa helped raise consciousness that November, our family collectively made a watershed decision about the scope and purpose of our Christmas giving.

My memories are fully positive of how we kept Christmas during my youth, but those traditions were about to change. And so it goes with the ones in place in the 40 years since.

Now in my mid-60s, I see them shifting again.

—-

As a kid, Christmas at the Rea house had always been festive, with gingerbread houses my mom made, garlands and lights, and of course, a tree. That stirs memory of my brother Matt and I, ages 9 and 7, watching as our cat climbed high enough to topple the tannenbaum.

For several years, our parents bought a smaller tree for my three brothers and I to put up in our basement play area. We decorated it with hand-made ornaments, treasures now lost to time.

The collection of gifts around the main tree can best be described as modestly copious. My parents always gave us clothes, along with toys marked “From Santa.” And there were always a few extra gifts wrapped beautifully under the tree.

We enjoyed the universal middle class American kid’s experience of greedily gauging the addition of more and more presents. We loved watching the pile grow.

A huge box always arrived a week or so before Christmas, and we knew this was from my mom’s sister, our Aunt Barbara, and the Wallach family in Chicago. Opening that box to dole out the 15 to 20 individually-wrapped presents within was a major Christmas morning bonus.

Any present-opening had to wait for Mom and Dad to get their coffee, though, and for Mom to take the annual Christmas bread from the oven, frost it and serve it with scrambled eggs. Then we could set to unloading Santa’s sleigh.

Basically from age 4 to 7, all I cared about was a new red fire engine, and would have been happy with just that.

Each year my brothers and my parents took turns opening presents. There was no random, rapid simultaneous tearing-off-the-paper for us.

A certain deflated deliciousness arose when we got to the end of the bounty, but Mom usually had something literally up in the tree – the one containing our annual National Geographic subscription from either my parents or grandmother, or even an envelope with cash from our grandmother, to be spent on the forthcoming trip to Lloyd Center. That was Destination Shopping for kids back in the day.

My Christmas days of youth were idyllic. We often we had snow enough on the steep driveway to go inner-tubing, and a school snow-day was always that hoped-for Christmas extra.

Any amount of snowfall would always lead to my Northern Michigan mother reminding us that when she was our age she used to ski out of her second-story window.

As a sixth-grader I served as Rose Hill Elementary’s Santa during the annual Christmas pageant, as those were still called in 1970. Little did I know that I would one day be on that stage when, during Santa’s arrival in my fourth-grade pageant, one of the teachers called from the back, “Louder, Steve.”

Even as a 10-year-old, I puzzled over Mr. Slater’s words. He could have said, “Louder, SANTA.” Steve Farmer, one of my brother’s friends, would have gotten the message. I just hoped Mr. Slater hadn’t poked some first-graders’ Santa belief bubble.

Two years later, as I handed out the fake presents when it came my turn as Santa, I boomed out the bonhomie. When the pageant was over, the well-wrapped but empty props were free for the taking, and I thought it funny to bring several home and put them under the tree.

My family did not think it so funny when they expectantly opened up the boxes and found nothing inside.

Inversely, we had an odd surprise involving tiny Christmas ornaments that our cousin Peggy in Michigan gave us around 1967. She sent a dozen or so two-inch presents, adorable little ribbon-wrapped creations that became annual tree adornments.

Peggy would visit years later and wonder why we had never opened them. She had, in fact, sent us tiny presents, not tree ornaments.

Peggy died in 1979. I have no recollection of what became of the “ornaments.” We must have opened them, but it’s more treasures lost to time.

Before I was born, my Grandma Neumann began sending us a hardcover Christmas “Annuals of Art and Literature” from the Augsberg Press, with songs, folklore, stories, poems, pictures and descriptions of Yule traditions around the world. With it, my view of the holiday grew in a global sense.

As a college junior in Israel, friends of my parents made a Christmas visit and delivered my parents’ holiday care package. I would spend a quiet Christmas afternoon alone by a small tree in a Jerusalem hotel lobby.

Entering adulthood, present-exchanging began to pale in importance. For a few years, the family drew names. That way, you purchased one gift for one member of the family, precluding the need to fill out long lists.

My toddler nephew, Sean, and later his little brother, Nick, got the kind of largesse their dad and his brothers had known at the same age. Same a few years later with Matt’s daughter, Kira. But otherwise, the family gift-giving achieved a calm simplicity.

—-

Then came 1984, and world events led someone in the family, maybe one of my parents or brothers — to suggest we forego gift exchanging completely and take the money we would have spent on presents and instead give it to famine relief. We made the conscious, unanimous, choice of giving this way every year moving ahead.

Yet a small whimsy meant we would not completely eliminate giving presents to each other. Thus began a tradition that endures some 40 years on: our gag-gift exchange.

Find something inexpensive and either silly, cheesy, awkward or tasteless, wrap it without labels and gather ‘round. Each person would select a present, followed by another.

Or you could give up choosing one in order to “claim” something you liked that someone else had already unwrapped, giving that person another turn. Most years it’s been a fun exercise, full of mirth or even cheerful anxiety as you cling to a present you want to keep and hope no one usurps, all the while pondering, “maybe I should have kept that penguin squirt gun.”

The annual – or almost annual – star of the show is “Cher-head,” a near-life sized plastic bust of the famed singer-actress. This gag gift — no one remembers where it came from — is now imbued with iconic status in the family.

We wait for her appearance. No one wants her, but someone has to keep her.

To maintain the element of surprise, the Cher-head holder will typically hang onto her for an extra year just to keep everyone guessing: Will Cher-head make an appearance this year? Ever again?

I think, though, that family gatherings have taken a turn for the Rea clan. Due to COVID, in recent years we either did not gather at all or in fewer numbers.

The last two years there have been no gag gifts, and for a while, no one seemed sure if the tradition would continue. But breaking news: we’ve decided to gather Jan. 1 to do the gag gifts.

The constant will be that Lucas, 5, son of the former toddler Sean, he will be getting real presents. I think I’ve got a cool book picked out.

Any uncertainty over all this is easily tempered by the fact that everyone in the family is healthy — and any lack of gathering this year is from travels and vibrancy of life rather than rifts or disagreements.

I know disharmony can affect so many people and it’s often worse this time of year, not better. In that way, we are fortunate.

Health and good relations are gifts born by time. And family ties can endure with the help of precious, if dog-eared, family objects.

Those Christmas annuals are out of the chest where they’ve been kept hidden away. I will pass them along to young Lucas.

Though 70 years old, and a bit euro-centric, the books are full of light and insight. I will read again of the Norwegian tradition of caring for birds and animals during winter, of the obscure Cornish song “The Furry Day Carol,” of poinsettia, garlands or buckwheat cake traditions, of Christ’s birthplace Bethlehem, how the first mention of the Christmas tree was in Alsace in 1521, and that “Silent Night” was written in 1818.

I had not known that it took 22 years after he created the poem for Dr. Clement C. Moore, professor of divinity, to publicly acknowledge he was the author of “The Visit Of St. Nicholas.” Where would we be without the immortal words, “‘Twas the night before Christmas …” ?

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