It wasn’t my gift that made it special

A very Les Mis Christmas. Christmas in our house was marked by traditions. On either Black Friday or the following Saturday, our family would drive up to San Francisco in the station wagon, parking at the 5th Street garage. We would make our way up Market St and past the cable cars to Union Square.

Our first stop was always to Neiman Marcus, where we would wait in line for seating in the Rotunda. An annual treat, we always ordered at least one round of popovers.

We walked around Neiman Marcus looking for the most expensive item we could find.

Afterward, we walked around the store looking for the most expensive item we could find and then make our way out to the Square, ogling the kittens and puppies in the windows at Macy’s, checking out the Christmas Wonderland on the roof of the Emporium, and walking wide-eyed through the F.A.O. Schwartz store with the block letters and oversized toys hanging off the front of the building.

Our last stop was the massive San Francisco Mall, where we marveled at all the decorations and the gorgeous and unusual escalator system.

As Roman Catholics, there were religious traditions to observe, as well. The Advent Wreath (made of copper piping) hung from the light in the dining room, and I would fight with my younger sisters to both light and blow out the candles after dinner. Sundays were particularly momentous, as we would read the weekly prayer before lighting the new Advent candle.

Advent was the calendar by which we marked the season.

On the second Sunday of Advent, it was time to buy the Christmas tree. Some years we went to a Christmas tree lot; other years, it was Home Depot. It wasn’t unusual for us to visit two or three lots until we found the right tree.

Bringing it home was another challenge. After getting the stand out, balancing the tree involved exasperated voices expressing frustration over getting it just right. One year, my dad ultimately resorted to using fishing line to stabilize the tree.

On the third Sunday of Advent, we decorated. Dad rolled out the line of oversized, multi-colored Christmas lights destined for the front railing and we carefully checked them for dead bulbs before he strung them out. It was the same for the Christmas lights. Once they were placed on the tree, we added the silver-and-gold crochet chain my older sisters made when they were young kids.

While Dad and us kids handled the technical aspects, Mom put Christmas music on the record player (and later, in the tape deck) and spent her time digging through and sorting boxes of decorations. She set aside the ones with the ornaments in them, starting instead with the house decorations.

Hanging [my special decorations] on the tree made me feel special and connected with Christmases past.

The colored-foil image of the Virgin Mary was always one of the first to go up, and the heirloom stuffed Santa took his position on a green armchair.

The Coke bottle Wise Men with their painted ceramic faces and clothes sewed by my two older sisters remained in their box until after Christmas Day, when they would start their long journey across our front bay window to the creche that was front-and-center under the tree.

Finally, it was time to decorate the tree: a full family event. Every year we made new decorations and the maker’s name and the year were carefully inscribed on the back for posterity. Pulling back out my misshapen ice skates with the stuffing hanging out of it (age 4 or 5) or the dough Christmas Tree with gaudy green and red sugar sprinkles on it (age 8) and hanging those on the tree made me feel special and connected with Christmases past.

We put up the ornaments my dad gave my mom each year we were born to commemorate our first Christmas and the popcorn balls wrapped in red cellophane my mom made early in their marriage when buying ornaments was tougher. And, every year, we had a few new ornaments to put up as well. Mom insisted that we give the tree “depth,” placing ornaments not just on the exterior of the tree, but inside as well. As I think back on it, I’m impressed that we never broke a branch with the weight we added to those trees.

Once Mom declared the tree “finished,” we wrapped up with a little eggnog (spiked with brandy for the adults) and hors d’oerves. One year, it was my responsibility to refill the drinks and, not knowing what we sprinkled the tops of the drinks with, I went for what looked like the correct spice in the cabinet. Each paprika-dusted eggnog was special that year.

All of this was just run up to the Big Day.

We celebrated Christmas Eve with my dad’s side of the family, with Hawaiian Cocktails and Manhattans liberally poured and imbibed as Santa arrived to hand out gifts to us grandkids.

The next morning, we would awake (I was always the first one up) to see the living room covered with gifts and usually a ribbon or chairs blocking our entry to the room. As we aged, we discovered the wisdom in starting the coffee before we knocked on my parents’ bedroom door; then stand tiptoe in our pajamas before the living room trying to discern just what was in the black-garbage-bag-covered items (if it was big enough to be unwrappable, it just *had* to be good).

Finally, Dad would take down the chairs and we would grab whatever spots we could find while Dad sorted through the presents to make sure they were as evenly distributed to each of us as possible. He insisted on playing the role of Santa every year, a role he still claims.

As we aged, we discovered the wisdom in starting the coffee before we knocked on my parents’ bedroom door.

One by one, the gifts were handed out. With five girls, it took a couple of hours to make our way through the gifts we gave each other, the gifts from my parents, and then — finally — the big gifts from Santa. By the time we finished, the living room was transformed yet again, this time to a wrapping-paper-covered sea of gifts and smiles.

One year, though, was particularly special. It was either 1989 or 1990, and Les Miserables was the Hamilton of its day. Finally coming off-Broadway to tour, we listened to the Broadway soundtrack endlessly. Still, today, I can put on any song from that soundtrack at any time and know every word instantly. (Our favorite was the Thenardiers’ ‘Master of the House,’ mostly because we could swear without getting in trouble.)

My mom got the excited, expectant look on her face that appeared any time she knew he was especially proud of her gift.

My dad handed off a gift to my mother. “To my love, with love,” he smugly announced. My mom got the excited, expectant look on her face that appeared any time she knew he was especially proud of her gift. A big block of a gift wrapped in silver-gray paper with snowmen on it, my mom went through all the motions of weighing and shaking it before finally revealing the gift.

“Oh my,” she exclaimed. My older sisters, both older teens, were less enthused on her behalf. “It’s a book,” one said. A family of bookworms, books were great gifts and greatly appreciated, but it didn’t seem to match up to Dad’s presentation. My mom held out the 1400-plus page tome that is Les Miserables. “I’ve wanted to read this!” She briefly riffled the pages, taking in the new-book smell.

“Honey, open the front cover,” Dad gently instructed. She pulled out a red envelope, and all I saw next were her eyes going huge, practically popping out of her head; her mouth hung open. She held up tickets to see the show at the Curran Theater, and my older sisters’ attitudes changed drastically. Nearly in tears, Mom was overjoyed. “Look at the date,” Dad urged her next. “Valentine’s Day!” she gasped, tears brimming in her eyes. “Now I’m going to cry!” proclaimed my oldest sister.

Years later, this is the Christmas that sticks with me the strongest, the one whose sights, sounds, and even smells still revisit me. My oldest sister’s life was already turbulent, although the extent was not yet fully known, and she would be dead within five years. It is the last Christmas I remember that, for me, was pure, simple joy, where our troubles were small enough that they could be overwhelmed and melted away by a simple, thoughtful gift.

Visit Teresa at

Mother, knitter, founder of Wounded Birds Ministry. I work with those living with mental health disorders. Visit Teresa at
Mother, knitter, founder of Wounded Birds Ministry. I work with those living with mental health disorders. Visit Teresa at

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