My Favorite Time of Year

By John Gilstrap

It’s tradition in the Gilstrap house that Christmas decorations go up on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and come down on New Years Day. In the past 25 years, there have been no exceptions. And when I say decorations, I mean decorations. In my book, you can’t have enough lights or greenery or Santas or Nativity scenes. It’s never about impressing the neighbors, either; it’s about celebrating the season.

This is a time of year when I can get a little weepy—but in a good way. It’s a season of kindness and good deeds. As the decorations go up in DC, moods lighten palpably. People say hello and hold doors for others. More people wave with all their fingers instead of just one. For me, it’s the time of year when the impossible seems more plausible, where quiet moments bring more pleasure than usual.

I love the fact that the Christmas season celebrates ritual. The box in which we keep the treetop ornament of my youth is lined on the bottom with the New Years Day Atlantic City Press from 1964, the year my family moved into the first house I can remember as a child, and on the top with the New Years Day Washington Post from 1985, the first holiday my wife and I celebrated as spouses. The mantle ornament is one that my mother bought for us before she died. The tree ornaments include decorations made in childhood by my wife, my son and me. I still hang a stocking that was handmade by my grandmother, and still holds the silver dollars that Uncle Henny gave me when I was four or five years old.

Tree ornaments commemorate every trip our family has ever taken together, as well as other significant moments along the way. We all agree that some of the older ornaments are certifiably ugly, but they get places of honor as well.

Over the next four or five weeks, my son and I will watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, Home Alone, The Santa Clause and The Polar Express, because we love the movies, and because they each, in their own way, capture the essential heart of the season. It’s A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story were dropped from the list a few years ago, but who knows? Maybe they’ll make a return.

As I write all of this down, it occurs to me that it all seems a bit regimented, and maybe it is, but I’ve always been a big believer in traditions, because within traditions there lies evidence of a family’s love for one another. If, one day, my son’s traditions include well-told stories about how over-the-top in love his old man was with all things Christmas, that can’t possibly be a bad thing.

I understand that the season brings dark feelings to some people, and I know that many of my artistic brethren look with cynicism on the commercialization of the Christmas season. To both groups I extend heartfelt condolences. Cynicism is only as deep as your next kind word, and as fragile as a charitable act for a stranger.

Truly, God bless us every one.

4 thoughts on “My Favorite Time of Year

  1. I love your post John. I too am a firm believer in tradition. My wife, being Korean, had never celebrated christmas as a child. At least not in the way we do here in America. Christmas there was primarily attending a late night church service, then returning to church Chrismas morning.

    Since we married (20 years ago yesterday) we have combined two worlds of tradition and mostly made our own since we both live very far from most of our extended family. The tree and decorations went up yesterday, and the kids are feeling the spirit of Christmas all around us. Alaska is a bit politer place than DC (I was at Ft. Meade for 5 years), so we don’t have too much single fingered saluting normally, but still people are even friendlier than usual. And the lights…oh the lights. It gets dark here by 4 in the afternoon from this week until the end of February, so the Christmas lights are a major thing.

    And a new tradition we are starting this year…anniversary weekend skiing retreat at Alyeska Resort.

    Happy beginning of the holidays for your and your family…and everyone else too.

  2. Thanks for paving the way so we don’t have to be embarrassed, John!

    Tomorrow my Christmas jewelry comes out — a different pin every day until New Year’s, some silly snowmen and some Met museum pieces.

    And — you want weepy? Try the old “White Christmas” — those moments of misunderstanding between Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby, then the General at the end … well, you see what I mean.

  3. You paint a warm and wonderful picture of your Christmas traditions, John. Our family has many as well. But for me, the music of Christmas is my favorite. Through the years I’ve found a way to fill our house with it from the ancient intercom system that came with the house 25 years ago to tuning all our TVs to the Holiday music channel on our satellite receivers, we have Christmas music in every room all day long.

  4. Your post made me nostalgic for some traditions lost, John! I have my grandmother’s Christmas wreath pin that she always wore on Christmas day–I think I’ll start to do the same. I think your continuation of ritual is a wonderful gift that you’re passing on to your son.

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