Growing up, my parents always let us open one gift on Christmas Eve. Some years we’d be visiting with our real mom for Christmas proper, so sometimes we’d open all our gifts ahead of time. We usually got two, sometimes even three, Christmases a year as a result.
But some years we would spend Christmas at our dad’s house. And when we lived in northern Virginia, it meant going up to our grandparents’ home for Christmas. Over the hills and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we’d go in central Pennsylvania. Sometimes there’d be snow, since we’d be up in the mountains.
There was always something magical about going to Grandma’s house. My cousin Aubrey would be so excited to see me, and most of the time, she’d convince her parents to let her spend the night at Grandma’s house with me. We’d both head to the attic, which had been converted to a couple of bedrooms, and sleep in a huge antique bed together. The days would be spent down in the basement, playing with Grandpa’s pool table. Somehow we’d come up with a game we called Bagel Factory, where we’d roll all the balls down the table and try to hit the pockets. It was about as simple a game as you could come up with.
The tree would be set up in my grandparents’ living room, the same room that my parents had gotten married in 1985. And the presents underneath — there were so many!! Of course, Aubrey and I spent a good chunk of time in front of the tree, scoping out the presents and trying to figure out who was getting what. Sometimes Grandma would open up the piano and play Christmas carols, with Aubrey and I belting the lyrics out as loud as we could!
Finally on Christmas Eve, we wouldn’t go to bed at our normal time. Instead we were allowed to stay up, since we were going to the midnight candlelight service! Late at night, trying not to yawn, we’d pile into the cars and head off to church.
My grandparents had what I always felt was a “real” church. Our own church in northern Virginia at the time was rather modern. It had been built during the 1980s with all the “benefits” of modern architecture. Sure, the huge windows behind the choir area (we didn’t even have a proper loft) were useful for staring out of during long and boring services, but it didn’t have the ambiance of an old, established church.
On the other hand, my grandparents attended a church that had been founded in the 18th century. The church building was old, with the front doors opening right onto the sanctuary, after you went through the coat closet area. Deep brown pews with green velvet pads arched gently around the sanctuary, framing the pulpit perfectly. And behind the pulpit were the huge silver pipes of the pipe organ. A real church, with a real pipe organ.
Now imagine this church lit only by candles as the congregation sings “Silent Night” gently in the darkness. A magical moment, if there ever was one.
Finally, we’d arrive back home, filled with the magic of the midnight service, but trying desperately to stay awake just a few moments longer. Once we got home, we were allowed to open just one present — as it was technically already Christmas.
One year, I knew precisely the gift I wanted to open. During our reconnaissance earlier in the day, Aubrey and I couldn’t stop wondering what this one cone-shaped present was. And it was huge!! My mom had given up trying to wrap it, and instead had swathed it in a huge bag with a festive print. I couldn’t wait any longer to find out what it was!
As soon as we got home from church, I raced into the living room, followed by the rest of my family. My sister, being very much more grown-up than I, wasn’t nearly as excited — or at least she wouldn’t show it. I immediately headed for the cone-shaped bag, begging my parents, “Please may I open it??? Please???”
As they nodded yes, I began to tear off the wrapping — and inside I found my third Cabbage Patch Kid. But what made this one unique was she was an astronaut, complete with oxygen tank, helmet, and a spacesuit! I was absolutely flabbergasted. I loved her! I was still in the astronaut phase of my childhood, which lasted until I realized I was never going to be smart enough or fit enough to make it into the space program.
To this day, that memory of Christmas Eve, with the beauty of the moment blending into the anticipation of Christmas day, remains one of my favorites. And I shall cherish it until the end of my days.