A Christmas to remember


What makes for great Christmas memories? Hopefully it isn’t all of the toys, electronic gizmos, and all of the glitz and glamour that accompanies the holidays these days.

As I look back on my Christmases as a youth, inevitably, my first thoughts always go to Grandma and Grandpa Stemen’s house in Convoy, Ohio.

It is odd that I wouldn’t conjure up memories of my own home in Trail, Ohio. But my mind always quickly lapses back to my childhood days of Christmases at my mother’s childhood home. After all, one doesn’t get to see Great-grandma Dindot all that often.

There are just certain sights, sounds and smells which are very comforting to me about those good old days in Convoy.

First, there was the trip out. Convoy is a tiny town close to the Indiana/Ohio border. It is, perhaps, a perfect slice of Americana.

The trip was always a long, flat drive, but it never got boring, at least as I think back now. I am sure that back then, I wore out the phrase “Are we there yet” over and over, and probably drove my mom and dad nuts during the three hour-plus trek, but the trip to Grandma and Grandpa’s house was always a big drawing card for me. I’m sure it was in the anticipation of what was to come more than anything.

It seemed so incredibly far away, and we didn’t get out there that often.

We’d pile up in the old station wagon, all six of us, and packed to the hilt with presents and luggage, would make the trip.

I remember getting this feeling of elation every time we would reach the Convoy road turn off of state Route 30. Snow or not, it was always exciting to see the cousins and Grandma and Grandpa.

Then there were Grandma’s famous green wreath cookies. Corn flakes, draped in some gooey green concoction, with three or four tiny cinnamon dots made these wreaths breathtakingly awesome. They barely fit into our mouths in one bite, but that never stopped us from trying. To this day, few foods can rival those wreath cookies.

Then there was the train.

About a quarter-mile behind the house was a train track, and I can so vividly remember laying in bed at night, listening to the clickity-clack of the railroad trains passing by, the mournful wail of the train whistle adding a splendid accompaniment. That remains one of the most soothing sounds in my memory.

Coming downstairs Christmas morning, bounding down the two flights of stairs to view the Christmas tree and all of those presents was just part of the experience.

It seemed like every morning, Grandpa would be making toast for breakfast, usually crispy and nearly dark brown, just like I make mine today.

We’d go out in the snow and play on the tire swing next the house, build snowmen, play hide and seek and usually couldn’t wait to open presents.

Oddly, I can not recall one single present I received over all of those years at the Stemen household.

They weren’t that precious, I guess. What really mattered was that we were together as a family, in a place that seemed incredibly safe from the world.

Another fond memory for me came in my teens, when our family was attending a Christmas Eve service at Sugarcreek First Mennonite.

I remember sitting in that church sanctuary, my mind wandering to the cold snow outside.
I knew it was snowing because the sanctuary has these tall, golden-tinted panes of glass lining the west side of the church, and I could see the hints of snow falling.

I couldn’t wait to get outside and be a part of that.

It was worth the wait.

The snowflakes were the size of half dollars, if memory serves, and they weren’t just falling from the sky. It was more like they were waltzing, dancing to and fro, performing some type of silent production just for me.

These were the kinds of snows that make you flinch when they hit your face, such was the weight of them. You could pick one out of the night sky yards away, watching it bounce and wiggle in the crisp night air, finally allowing it to land ever so lightly on the tongue.

I remember thinking, at that moment, that it had to be the most serene feeling in the world.

Now, all grown up, so to speak, I have my own children who are making their own memories.

Strangely enough, my best Christmas memory with my own children came at a time when many were cursing the weather.

It was the Christmas of the big ice storm, and despite a lack of electricity, my wife and my three sons of ages 10, 8 and 4 made one of the most pleasant and rewarding times on record for Christmas memories.

That Christmas we sat by the fire at Mema and Grampa Kandel’s house next door and played board games, I threw pinpoint passes (at least a few) to my sons in our basement, the boys diving wildly onto a mass of four mattresses to make game-winning catches. We had a wonderful time doing nothing in particular, but doing it together..

Sledding that year at my brother John’s house was incredible. We raced down the huge hill in his back yard at tremendous speeds. We constructed snow igloos, built snowmen, boiled up some satisfying hot chocolate and popped popcorn when we decided to come in out of the cold and did a lot of activities which didn’t include electricity.

Listening to the laughter, the giggling, the humorous jabs being tossed about, experiencing the love around me was monumental. It was awe-inspiring to see the joys God had blessed me with.

Over time, the presents seem to melt away into a hodgepodge of misty memories. As a kid it was a blue baseball glove and a Mattel electronic football game that included about 12 tiny quarter-inch long blips and six buttons. As a dad, a sweater.

They are just presents.

The real memories come from within, things that make the heart grow fonder for those days upon further review years and decades later.

What makes a Christmas memory so special?

It is whatever you hold near and dear to your heart.

For me, it has been family, and the magical, glorious Christmases spent with siblings, parents, cousins aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

It is blowing a crazy milk bottle cap around the table at the Mast reunion. It is playing Super Things with my cousins, and helping my kids prepare glittery reindeer food the night before Christmas. It is watching my youngest son create an elegant plate of goodies for Santa at 11:38 on Christmas eve, a task which usually included graham crackers, Oreo cookies, Pop Tarts, candy bars, homemade cookies, pretzels and milk, all placed on the royal blue, special plate reserved for special occasions.

No, Santa was not going to go hungry at our house.

It is easy to get wrapped up in the giving of presents each Christmas, but without all of these memories and thousands more, what are they? Just things, that’s all.

Gizmos break. Jewelry loses its luster. Sports balls get holes in them. Clothes are outgrown and fade.

All of those memories that stand out, those can’t be taken away. They live forever in my mind, precious, each one of them.

Here’s to looking forward to creating more precious moments, for myself, my wife and my three sons.

I’ve got more than enough storage room in my heart and in my mind to pack away those invaluable gifts for a long, long time.