Looking through old family photographs recently, one jumped out it me. My father made it on Christmas morning 1960.
In the black-and-white picture, I am beside our tree, surrounded by toys, sitting in a pedal-powered fire engine my grandfather just gave me. I am grinning ear-to-ear.
I was 28 months old in that picture, a month younger than my grandson will be Thursday when he comes over to sit beside our tree, surrounded by toys and adults who adore him.
Christmas is many things: a religious holiday, when Christians celebrate the birth of their savior; and a commercial enterprise, a frenzy of buying and selling, giving and getting that fuels some of our best and worst instincts.
In my family, Christmas also is a time when everyone steps back from hassles of everyday life to enjoy spending time with one another. Those gatherings are never more enjoyable than when they include young children, whose sense of wonder helps us remember when we were just like them.
When I was a boy, Christmas began in November with delivery of the Sears Wish Book. My brothers and I would study each page of the toy offerings so our letters to Santa would precisely reflect our material dreams.
Several items from our lists would usually be under the tree Christmas morning. And when we tired of them, Dad would bring out his 1930s electric train and sit on the floor and play with us.
Christmas was always about special food, too. My aunt in California would send a box of chocolates. Salesmen would send Dad crocks of cheese and boxes of sausages. Some sent fruitcake, too, and some of it was edible.
If Dad had gone hunting that fall, there would be fried quail or rabbit for breakfast. Otherwise, he and Mom would fix country ham and eggs.
Christmas meant oysters, too. My parents developed a taste for them when Dad was in the Navy and they lived in a fishing village on the coast of Maine. Each Christmas, they would splurge so we could enjoy oyster stew, scalloped oysters, fried oysters with cocktail sauce and raw oysters on Saltine crackers.
For Christmas dinner, there was turkey and giblet gravy to go with oyster stuffing, celery sticks with cream cheese, green bean casserole and cranberry sauce shaped like its tin can. There was a plate of olives, too, if I didn’t eat them all before dinner.
My mother always made a jam cake, which required two or three weeks of cold storage to properly moisten. Because refrigerator space was tight, the cake would age in the trunk of her car as she ran errands around Lexington.
Nothing went better with a good, high-mileage jam cake than ice cream and boiled custard, a homemade tradition Mom brought from Western Kentucky that is like eggnog, only better.
Christmas lost some of its magic in the 1970s as my three younger brothers and I grew up. But it returned in the 1980s when my wife and I had two daughters. They preferred dolls and books to trains and trucks, but I adjusted.
My wife is a master cookie baker, so our Christmases together have always been steeped in sugar. Her traditional family treat is the springerle, a flat, anise-flavored cookie. Each springerle has an elaborate design made by a hand-carved wooden rolling pin her ancestors brought with them from Germany in the mid-1800s.
As the girls became adults, I missed having kids around. Then, three years ago, our older daughter and her husband surprised us with a small, wrapped box on Christmas morning. Inside was a pacifier and a tag with a due date.
My grandson’s first two Christmases were fun, but this year should be even better. I’m just sorry Dad won’t be with us, because he was never happier in his last two years than when he was with his great-grandson and my youngest brother’s little boy. It reminded me of how he was with our daughters, and with my brothers and me before them.
The only thing better than being a small child at Christmas is having one around to enjoy. I hope you are as fortunate as we are. Merry Christmas.