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Holiday magic begins under the Christmas tree

Prairie Public's Danielle Webster's kindergarten portrait appears in a vintage ornament from her childhood.
D. Webster
Prairie Public's Danielle Webster's kindergarten portrait appears in a vintage ornament from her childhood.

Prairie Public's Danielle Webster remembers Christmases past.

There’s something about becoming a parent that makes you start looking back as much as you look forward. You’re making decisions with the future in mind, but it’s hard to not start viewing the world as your children might because, after all, you were a kid once yourself.

This is especially true for me around the holidays because I have such vivid memories of Christmas as a kid. After all, when you’re a kid – Christmas really is the most wonderful time of the year.

Every family will celebrate a little differently. On my dad’s side it was always the gift exchange at the old farm for Christmas Eve, lots of Norwegian treats, vintage looking décor and a long drive back home on snowy gravel roads late at night, hoping we got there before Santa flew over. On my mom’s side, we got to travel to Southern California for a loud and boisterous gift opening under a mountain of wrapping paper on Christmas morning, and it lasted for hours as everyone went one at a time, still wearing their pajamas.

And all of that was great, but the main ingredient, to ME, was the Christmas tree. The family always gathered around the Christmas tree and that was where all the magic took place. The tree at the old farm was a modest height, with multi-colored lights and a smattering of ornaments from my dad’s childhood. In California, a large, gaudy tree with too many decorations was surrounded by train tracks and a little train that chugged around in a circle between all the piled gifts. Those trees were nice, but the tree we put up in our own living room was the most important tree in my world. And it was up to ME to make sure this tree was perfect.

As the oldest of four daughters, I felt a sense of leadership and responsibility around this tree because, - whether this was real, or imaginary – I had the final say. Every year we drove to town as a family to pick out the tree, and it was an agonizing process because it had to be the right color green, the needles had to be the right length and you had to use expert skills of deduction to be able to figure out exactly how the branches would fan out after the twine was cut off. After all, you can’t have a tree with a gaping hole in the middle of it! And I, in my infinite childhood wisdom, of course had this down to an exact science. I could choose the perfect tree, and no one’s opinion mattered more than my own.

In fact, my poor dad tried to get the tree by himself one year, and came home one evening with a “surprise” tree. He more than likely grabbed it because he was in town and we needed one and this was the perfect chance to get this task checked off the never-ending Christmas to-do list. But my sisters and I took one look at this tree and knew for a fact it was garbage, and had no business standing in our home. It went back the next day, and we rectified that situation by choosing the proper tree ourselves.

My dad made another mistake a different year, and left the tree outside for the night with plans to bring it in and mount it in the tree stand the next morning. But one of our barn cats saw the tree as, well… let’s call it an “opportunity” and we needed a different tree that year as well.

Now, once we got this perfect tree inside, bolted into the tree stand and it was able to relax its branches, then we got to the real serious business of decorating it.

My dad got the honor, or perhaps it was the curse, of hanging the multi-colored, large bulb lights that softly clicked together as they were handled, and he had to take direction from and appease his house full of opinionated daughters on where they needed to be. Once those were situated we got to arrange all the ornaments, and they had to be hung just so. My sisters and I would argue about who got to hang which ornaments. These fights the closest thing we got to a full on cage match, which usually resulted in one or more of us crying and having to allow someone else hang a certain ornament. I always went back later and sneakily moved them to their proper spots when no one was looking. I loved our ornaments so much! They were a collection of fancy mementos that were gathered over so many years, and I always felt the warmth of the memories they invoked when I handled them.

When the tree was decorated and the lights were plugged in, you almost got an electric sense of excitement because now, Christmas was officially here. Presents would start arriving under the tree. Lists for Santa would be finalized. Cookies got baked and decorated. The anticipation of Christmas morning was almost too much to bear because you absolutely KNEW it was going to be amazing, but you never quite knew exactly what Santa would bring, or what you would discover under all the glistening wrapping paper and bows. And what’s illuminating to me now as an adult is I can’t remember exactly what gifts I ever received on Christmas; what stands out to me most are the family meals, the late nights of playing cards and laughing, the actual WAITING for Christmas morning and the quality time I got to spend with many relatives I didn’t get to see as often throughout the year.

Another thing that’s interesting to me as an adult is imagining what this had to be like for my parents, who started having kids nearly ten years before I did. My dad, a young fourth generation farmer, and my mother, a true fish out of water transplant from Huntington Beach really made a great team when it came to making it magical for us every year. And as a kid you tend to believe the magic will last forever.

In some ways, it does last forever, but you have to work at it and be open to it evolving. My sisters and I grew up. My parents built their dream house on a different farmstead, and my mom got white carpeting – so they got a pre-lit fake tree to bring out every year, instead of picking a real one dripping with sticky pine sap that rained evergreen needles if you forgot to water it and walked by it too quickly. She also got glamorous matching ornaments, while our old ones stayed hiding in storage for years. We all got married and started our own families, and now we had to do our own shuffling between different homes and celebrations every season. A lot of the relatives we used to see on Christmas are no longer with us. Now it’s our job to make Christmas magical for our own kids.

Last year, my mom finally brought out the box of old ornaments and said she was ready to part with them. My sisters and I each got a chance to go through them and pick our favorites we wanted to keep, and my mom said she was pitching the rest. I am happy to report there was no hair pulling, cat fighting or tears when it came time to choose who got which mementos of Christmases past… in fact, I think we were surprised that we remembered them to be much more impressive than they really were. When it came down to it, it wasn’t the actual stuff that made Christmas magical, it was the energy and the emotion we gave to it.

I don’t know how many people can say this about their childhood, but I remember the moment I was done playing with toys. One day I went and got all my Barbies dressed, set up the Barbie house and car, and then thought to myself… “Okay, well, now what?” I think I might have been around eleven or twelve years old. It’s such a small period of your life where you truly believe everything is just a little more magical than it actually is. It’s not a lot time. And now when I look at toys, activities and holidays through the eyes of my kids I can appreciate how hard my parents had to have worked to keep that magic going for as long as they did. And I hope our Christmas tree is just as exciting to our kids as mine was when I was their age. For now, the magic is real, and we’ll embrace it as long as it lasts.