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Walks of Life: Stairway to Santa

Christmas morning. I’ve been awake for hours, if I even slept at all, eagerly anticipating what lies downstairs under the tree and strategically placed around the living room. Santa has apparently arrived but the clock is ticking second by agonizing s-e-c-o-n-d in s-l-o-w m-o-t-i-o-n. As always, we must stay in bed until at least 7 a.m., and then wake our parents before we can head for our way-station to Christmas – the Stairway to Santa.

The top of the stairwell is purgatory for the naughty and the nice. We are glued here despite belief or disbelief, age or gender, or role in the Christmas charade/parade. Kids cannot venture beyond the top step until cameras are ready – the parental paparazzo’s first photo op for the pre-game show takes place at the bottom of the stairs, and then around the tree for kick-off and the half-time stretch. The aroma of coffee and coffee cake (the only day of the year we have this strangely named treat) drifts through the house to further tempt and tantalize. It’s no fair that moms and dads get to go to the kitchen, where of course they will already have spotted the loot strewn in stockings and on sofas.

“OK girls, you can come down now.” The youngest has the honors of first down the stairs, followed by the middle daughter and FINALLY me (today, eldest daughter Jordan). I don’t know who’s more excited – the parents, the kids or the dogs, who don’t know what to make of the chaos and the half-eaten Moravian sugar cookies generously left out overnight. We shriek in recognition of the item that is the top of our list – if we even have a list. Those too hefty to perch on Santa’s lap bask in the glory of gift-giving, not getting.

Complications arise when there’s a change-up of family traditions. What if we are in a place with no stairs? (Wait outside the doorway of the living room?) What if there is no chimney or fireplace for Santa to come down? (If you’re on a sailboat in the Caribbean, make sure the mast is sturdy enough for Santa to slide down.) And what if those we are sharing Christmas morning with have a different routine? What if they don’t open presents until lunchtime, or they rip open presents all at once vs. one at a time, or worst of all, they slowly unveil each of their 200 presents one at a time, with color commentary accompanying each gift, while our own children have a slightly smaller number of packages to unwrap. In these tricky situations, I recommend the divide-and-conquer approach. Divide into your own holiday tradition mode and keep that intact, and then come back together at mealtimes.

Families gel as traditions are established. I fell in love with my husband the first Christmas we spent together, as unbeknownst to us we created continued Collins’ traditions of annual ice skating and Messiah Sing-ins. One of my favorite Christmas Eve memories of my formative years in North Carolina was our church’s beloved Love-feast – a 300-year-old Moravian tradition that combines a candlelight service, tea and Moravian buns (my least favorite aspect of the service) with singing of O’ Holy Night and Go Tell it on the Mountain.

I also recall a variation on the love-feast concept that we now aspire to as our family’s own tradition. Years ago we were newlyweds visiting the Cleveland Heights in-laws, with a foot of snow blanketing the ground (you can always count on a White Christmas in Cleveland). On Christmas Eve, we joined a group from church for a concert and dinner – at a homeless shelter in downtown Cleveland. My father-in-law and his brother Jack played the piano and sang hymns and tunes for the diners, while we served a hearty meal and then joined the group for food and song.

Our gift of hospitality was appreciated by those enjoying a reprieve from the bitter Lake Erie cold, but looking back, the real gift was given to us. Just as the Christ child was born in a lowly stable and not the Ritz Carlton, our dinner guests cherished food and warmth with no other expectations. So why do I raise the bar expecting the perfect Christmas – the perfect card, the perfect children, the perfect house, the perfect gift, even the perfect Christmas pageant, when all one can expect is a zoo in the truest sense of the word?

Dear Santa: All I want for Christmas is family, friends, faith and homemade stocking stuffers (and I’ll even make the coffee cake for old time’s sake).

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