The Night Before Christmas

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    Christmas is perhaps the most global and yet the most personal of holidays. People of varying faiths participate in a grand tradition of 2,000 years (or more, shout out to you, ancient Druids!) But each family’s celebration is unique. We interlace our own practices within the customs handed down through the millennia, and the result is a celebration we call our own. The Moore Family Christmas is a perfect example.

    Some traditions belong just to me and my wife, Dena. Take shopping. (No, really, take it.) For many years, our tradition was to make a huge mess of keeping track of gifts for kids, parents, nieces, nephews, teachers, Godparents, mail carriers, toll-booth workers. We spent one Christmas Eve staring glumly at the hearth, trying to figure out why our older son, Ben, had six presents, while our younger son, Sam, only had two.

    Dena: How did this happen?

    Me: Clearly, we love Ben more.

    Dena: Clearly, you disregarded every gift conversation we had. And thus was born a Moore Christmas tradition: the Google doc shopping list! It is elegant in its simplicity, a spreadsheet with a “To” list of names down the side and a “From” list of names across the top. Gift ideas reside in the intersecting cells and – wait for the sheer genius of this – each cell is color-coded. Yellow for Chris to do, blue for Dena to do, green for completed, and red for, Do we really need to buy a gift for the neighbor’s aunt’s dog walker?

    The next part of this tradition unfolds over the ensuing shopping season. The blues turn swiftly to greens. Weeks pass with yellows remaining stubbornly yellow. Then something wonderful occurs. Yellows begin magically turning to blues, and then to greens. We cruise into Christmas with gifts in proper proportion, beautifully wrapped, and expeditiously shipped to whatever far-flung location the recipient calls home. It is a Christmas miracle!

    Which is good, because things really kick into high gear on the best day of the year, Christmas Eve. Dena did not, could not have known (because I hid this fact from her) that she was marrying into a family of food-inhaling freeloaders. Christmas Eve begins at seven in the morning at a local diner with my brother, sister, and their respective families. The mounds of pancakes, eggs, and bacon serve as a training table for the following day, when everyone will descend upon our house for a Christmas Day feast. After breakfast, I depart to join the long earlymorning line to pick up a honey-baked ham for said feast. (Another Christmas tradition: Every year I call weeks in advance to reserve a ham, and every year I am given the exact same reservation number: 24-2. Amazing!)

    All of this has to – has to – happen before ten, because I have to, yes, have to be in a quiet place for the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols that NPR broadcasts from King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, England. Every year the service begins in contemplative silence, which then gives way to the crystalline purity of a boy soloist singing the opening verse to “Once in Royal David’s City,” and every year I weep at its perfection. My children participate not by actually listening with me, but by inquiring periodically throughout the day, “Did you weep yet?” “Is it weeping time?” “Tell me again, what comes first, the weeping or the ham?”

    Traditions pass away as well. NORAD Tracks Santa, for instance, was once an integral part of our Christmas Eve. These days, NORAD tracks Santa without us.

    Later in the day, as the light fades into early winter evening, our traditions become more, well, traditional. Early church, followed by dinner at a restaurant we patronize only on this night of the year. Then, home, for the part I love most.

    Christmas Eve culminates at bedtime. Three children’s books have followed us through the years, and I have traditionally read them out loud, in a carefully choreographed order, before the lights are turned out for dreams of Xbox games and soccer cleats. It doesn’t matter that we all know every word by heart, or that the bindings are cracked and pages yellowed, or that I read in voices best suited to a kindergarten audience. Of everything we do, this storytime is the one inviolable tradition, landing us softly out of all the pre-Christmas craziness into the warm embrace of its joy.

    If this is the best tradition of all, it grew even better two years ago, when Ben picked up the first book and began to read, and I finished by reading the other two. It wasn’t designed. It just kind of happened, and I knew immediately that it was good, the tradition having spun another thread to knit our generations together.

    And that’s how it goes with traditions.

    Some are passed down, some are newly created, some even fade away, but all of the best traditions grow along with the family. Will Sam be next? Will he pick up a book one year before long and begin to read? You never know how these things will go, and that’s part of their charm.

    So now it’s time for me to be quiet. Lie back and close my eyes as Ben begins his storybook. You’ll forgive me if I am lifted for a moment on his words, into years still to come, when I have handed off the reading altogether and float into Christmas swaddled on the voices of my family, telling the stories we have grown to love together.

    Merry Christmas, everyone.