Grandma's gone, but Christmas memories live on

By  Lisa Petsche
  • December 18, 2006

 Christmas at Grandma's — widowed as long as my kids have known her — has always been a special time. Numerous traditions are an integral part of the experience.

Preparations get underway early in December, beginning with decorating. All of the grandchildren usually pitch in. Their favourite decorative items include silver garland for draping around the living room mirror, a wooden reindeer for the fireplace hearth, a huge, inflatable candy cane and a Santa face that hangs on the wall. Everything has its appointed spot, which never varies.

On top of the buffet goes the winning seasonal entry our eldest daughter submitted to a children's greeting card contest. Christmas portraits of the grandkids are arranged around it, some dating back quite a few years. It's always fun to look them over.

Then there are the strings of traditional, multi-coloured lights; they frame the picture window that faces the street.

My kids especially enjoy assembling and decorating Grandma's "fake" tree, partly because we don't get ours from the tree farm until later in the month. The assortment of ornaments never changes; virtually all date back to my husband's childhood.

Baking sessions take place in mid-December. Shortbreads, the most labour-intensive treats, are made in a couple of different shapes, using special tools; festive candy beads are sprinkled on top. No-bake haystacks — a mix of chow mein noodles and peanuts coated in chocolate — are another seasonal favourite. As Grandma's vision has declined, the kids have taken over more of the work. Several batches of each recipe are made to enable sharing.

The big Christmas feast is held at Grandma's house without fail. Although her kitchen is small, she has the largest dining room set and the nicest dishes, and enjoys hosting. With both leaves in the table, she can accommodate a good-sized group. All of us come bearing menu items.

The sight of gifts cascading out from under the tree never fails to take the kids' breath away when they enter Grandma's living room on Christmas Day. They crawl around to check the names on each decoratively wrapped item and play guessing games.

After dinner the eagerly awaited gift exchange takes place. It takes some time for everything to be opened, admired and passed around. By then we're ready for dessert, enjoying the treats made in Grandma's kitchen, along with an assortment of nuts and candies. Afterwards the adults chat and clean up while the kids play with their gifts and each other. Everyone is contentedly exhausted by the time the evening wraps up.

Unfortunately, last Christmas turned out to be the last one like this. Grandma died unexpectedly a short time later.

We've made it through almost a whole year now without her, including various special occasions: Valentine's Day, Easter, Mother's Day, Thanksgiving and numerous birthdays and anniversaries. Christmas is the final frontier — and the one we've been most anxious about.

It's been hard figuring out how to approach it. Our celebrations will involve a mix of old and new. One of the new things is a special angel ornament on our tree, in memory of Grandma. It joins the angel memorializing the baby we lost a number of years ago.

We "inherited" Grandma's artificial tree, and made a place for it in our family room. The kids insisted we still get a real one, though; it's in the usual corner of the living room.

The location of our extended family gathering will be different, and will probably rotate from year to year. Dinner will be buffet-style, since none of us had space in our home to accommodate Grandma's dining room table. The usual Christmas desserts, made just the way Grandma taught us, will be served on her special dishes.

Afterwards we'll look through photos from past Christmases, many taken last year thanks to my sister-in-law, who was eager to try out her new digital camera. We'll reminisce about the good times and, I trust, experience gratitude for them even in the midst of our grief.

There's comfort to be found in carrying on traditions and recalling happy memories.

We'll also draw comfort from this poem a friend gave me, "My First Christmas in Heaven" (author unknown): "So have a Merry Christmas, And wipe away that tear, Remember I am spending Christmas with Jesus Christ this year."

What more could you wish for someone you love?

(Petsche is a Contributing Editor to The Catholic Register.)

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