I have a favorite Christmas picture. Taken over 60 years ago, it’s black and white and shows an entire extended family gathered around a Christmas tree that is sparse of branches and decorated with nothing but a few strands of tinsel that were probably saved from the year before.
An uncle is in the back wearing overalls. An aunt is behind the tree and would be hidden if the tree had been fuller. My grandmother, who we called “Ma”, is wearing one of the jersey dresses that she received from one of her daughters every Christmas. The rest of us are solemnly staring forward as if no one had ever told us we should smile at the camera.
There are no glittering Christmas lights, no fancy dresses, and nothing that makes this picture special other than it’s the only one that exists of a Christmas tradition that spanned two decades.
The anticipation of going to Ma’s house for dinner every year on the night before Christmas is my most vivid memory of the holiday. There were presents at home the next morning, brought by Santa, but it’s the Christmas Eve gathering of the whole family that I remember the most.
How we all waited for the last cousins to arrive and how good it felt to all be together.
Years went by, cousins grew up and moved, new family units were created, and the Christmas Eve tradition of my childhood faded into the past, surviving only in memory and one lone picture that will forever define Christmas for me as a time for family.
There have been good Christmases since and new traditions made. Some, I hope, that created the same feelings that I took away from those Christmas Eves at Ma’s.
A feeling of belonging to something bigger than ourselves.