Since 1972, our family has been keeping a journal of Christmas events in a little book called Christmas Through the Years. Now, I can look back to that first year and see that it was foggy and that we cooked a goose with sauerkraut stuffing.
And I can look back to 1996 to remind me that my mother was visiting from Milwaukee. That year, she documented that she had prepared mushroom and pumpkin soup for our Christmas Eve dinner, the Polish Wigilia, which also included a traditional dish of beans and prunes.
As I read these pages, I remember some things so clearly. The year a snowstorm stranded us at the Buffalo airport, where we sat forlornly, gifts in bags at our feet. And another snow, far more beautiful, where we made the first footprints on Christmas morning while helping our sons deliver papers.
Some events are lost in time, my memory of them as foggy as the weather 27 years ago. Some people we celebrated those earlier holidays with remain fast friends. Others we've lost track of. Sadly, a few have died.
These days can be bittersweet.
Anne Simon remembers surprising her father in 1997 by showing up at his church on Christmas Day. It comforts her now, because two months later he was diagnosed with a terminal illness and he is now deceased.
"He wasn't around for the next Christmas," she said.
Today, while we are all discovering candle wax and gravy damage on our tablecloths and wondering if the tree will last until New Year's, it seems like a good time to sift through our memories, to see what comes up gold and what is dross.
I propose that chasing down gifts -- even finding the perfect one -- means the least in the long run. As I flip through the yellowing pages of that family history book, I find that I recall few gifts, either given or gotten.
This year, though, will be an exception because each time I look out the kitchen window I see the blue spruce tree that my husband planted as his gift to me, getting the hint of what I wanted on the third go around.
When I asked Kathy Kurczynski about her Christmas memories, she said that everything her parents, Agnes and the late Jack Hartman did, was either hand-made or homemade. In the 1940s, for example, her mother -- who is still working on projects at age 82 -- got them all making rhinestone earrings and brooches to give as gifts. When Kurczynski's grandmother died, she kept the pieces that they'd made for her.
Because Kurczynski's father was so hospitable, their house became an open house from the beginning of the season, which started with her father's wine punch on Christmas Eve, until New Year's Day, when he concocted Tom and Jerry's.
"I remember spending a lot of time in the kitchen washing Tom and Jerry mugs between groups," Kurczynski said. "This is the kind of thing you remember . . . not going to a shopping mall."
I am lifted by reminders of plays and concerts, some that our children were in as youngsters; by reading about our son surprising us by putting up the outside lights; by remembering trips to the Broadway Market for pierogi and kielbasa.
From previous years also come reminders of stamina I no longer have: staying at a New Year's eve party until 3:30 a.m. and then hosting an open house the next day.
I cherish the small, home-grown customs that take on meaning because their familiarity connects us to Christmas past. A favorite ritual, for me, is to put out a few pieces from a manger scene each Sunday during Advent so that by the last week, the three kings, shepherds and Joseph and Mary are in place. Meanwhile, baby Jesus stays hidden in the drawer next to a cribbage board until Christmas morning.
Each year the stockings contain an apple, an orange and "penny" candy from Kelly's Country Store. And certain scratchy records must be played.
For some people, it's baking cookies, the recipe taken from the same grease-stained recipe card, year after year. For some, it's going to Midnight Mass, the pew filled with visiting family members. For some, it's choosing and cutting a tree together.
This year, our book will record that we went to Niagara-on-the-Lake's annual carolcade where hundreds of people walked the village streets carrying candles and stopping to hear choirs and choral groups along the way. And that we discovered the wonderful sound of the 50-member Canisius Chorale in a joy-filled concert.
And we'll be reminded, as Kathy Kurczynski said so well: "What makes the best memories is doing things together."