There’s a special magic to blinking open your eyes from a long sleep and realizing it’s somehow both still dark and very bright out that morning – only to discover the reason for that is the windows and all outside are covered in snow. Tiny frozen stars etched onto the glass, snow glistening as it drapes over each tree branch and coats each pine needle. It was only yesterday you were stomping around in that very grass, crunching the fallen leaves under your feet releasing that earthy smell, combined with the crisp air that could only mean snow was on its way. There is nothing quite as magical as the blanket of freshly fallen snow, except maybe on Christmas morning…These are some of my fondest memories from growing up, along with, of course, the entire Christmas season and all it promised each year.
Being a December baby, it was always a time of surprises and never-ending wonder at the beautiful sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the season. My family would always wait to get our tree (real of course) till the weekend before my birthday, which is two weeks before Christmas every year. Decorating that tree was such a special tradition. Every ornament had a story, and we all had our favorites. Of course my mother had already been baking for weeks by that point, every family member, friend, and neighbor got a carefully packaged container of her famous Christmas cookies, wrapped in clear plastic and tied up with a red ribbon. She would store the dozens of them between sheets of wax paper in white 5 gallon tubs from the restaurant where my father was a M’aitre D’. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sneak quite a few back in the day. The Russian Tea cookies have always been my downfall (and my favorite).
Another favorite tradition was driving through the neighborhoods to see Christmas lights. For some reason, growing up, both my grandparents and our house only ever did white candles in our window at Christmastime. (I think my grandmother thought colored outdoor lights looked “tacky”?) We had colored lights on the tree, candles in the window and a wreath on the door. No colorful C6 bulbs stapled to our rooftop or wrapped around our bushes. But what that austere decor made me do was appreciate everyone else’s lights all the more. Many towns in New England have a town square or green with big old trees, which are usually covered in lights, sometimes twinkling, sometimes not, including Watertown Square, which we would pass on the way to my grandparents house. The Boston Common in downtown Boston also did this with many of their trees, and we’d sometimes take a drive to the city just to see them, ending at the big tree outside the Prudential Center. I can still feel the cold vinyl of the backseat in the family car, as the dark winter night was suddenly lit with thousands of lights before my eyes.
Of course I have other memories too; taking part in the Christmas pageant at school where I got to be an angel, the smell of the incense during holiday mass, and the opposite of extremes, watching all the holiday specials on tv, usually with a mug of hot cocoa and some of those famous Christmas cookies I mentioned above. Snow days off of school, walking up to the hill on the other side of our own town square and sledding down all day with friends till my socks were soaked and my toes and nose were frozen from cold. And I’m sure I’m not alone with these memories, and they probably still exist today for kids in New England towns or anywhere up north that gets snow. I know I’m not unique in that regard. By stark contrast to my current location, I never once visited Walt Disney World during the holidays as a child. Even when we moved to Ocala in 1985 and became annual passholders I did not experience a Disney Christmas, since we drove back up to Massachusetts to have the holidays with my grandparents. After college, I moved back to Florida from Massachusetts in 1995 to work at Walt Disney World, and finally experienced the holidays in the parks first hand, as a cast member on Main Street. U.S.A.
Which brings me to the purpose of my post today. If you asked any of my children to write about their holiday memories, they would have a very different answer, and not just because 25+ years separate our childhoods. Some parts would be similar; we still make cookies, we still watch those holiday specials (although I may be the only one that appreciates their vintage charm), I have managed to break the “only candles in the window” decorating rule, and of course we still drive around and look at lights, it’s just that our neighbors do a bit more decorating down here. In fact, there’s a castle down the street that really goes all out. All of my past memories and traditions are why, if I let myself pause long enough, seeing those icicle lights on Cinderella Castle brings me to tears. Because as many years of memories as I have riding in the backseat and looking at lights through the car window, I now have many more of myself and my children walking down Main St. U.S.A. and seeing the Castle lights for the first time, or images in my head of my oldest two side by side in a double stroller, looking up with eyes wide, mouths agape, and hands outstretched to catch the “snow” as we strolled through the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. And later, my youngest, now 10, dancing in the Streets of America to Feliz Navidad as a tiny 5 year old, laughing and spinning around, as I captured it on video. I’m tearing up just thinking about it. Don’t even get me started on Candlelight Processional and how I’m moved to tears every year as the songs swell and the voices sing out and you realize all the things you are truly, truly grateful for on this earth.
These are the holiday traditions and memories my children grew up with. And I know they wouldn’t trade them for the world. We are extremely blessed to be so close to all of these amazing holiday experiences, and to have been able to attend them for so many years so that they have become traditions, not just holiday happenings, but part of the ever-growing tapestry of our family story. One could say that these new traditions couldn’t possibly mean as much, since they take place at the globally dominant headquarters of capitalization and money-hungry corporate messages of “buy this!” abound. And you would be right, and wrong. Yes, Disney parks are corporate wizards at marketing their way into your wallets and making you think you need more and you need it now. But if you sift past the mind-numbing amounts of instagrammable offerings thrown at you, you can experience the holiday spirit in its refined, concentrated form. Christmas lights, traditional holiday storytelling, holiday treats from around the world, parades, cookies, holiday music and trees and decorations everywhere. Gingerbread houses, caroling, Santa and Mrs. Claus, the story of Christmas….These are the takeaways and the memories created at the Place Where Dreams Come True (and the Happiest Place on Earth because we’ve been to Disneyland during the holidays too and they are pretty darn magical over there as well), which will carry my children into adulthood as they create their own traditions with whatever and whomever the future holds for them.
My holiday story has gone from one where you never know who would show up at the front door for some coffee and Christmas cookies, to walking through a Disney park and never knowing which friends and neighbors you’d bump into. My oldest children drove right around the Magic Kingdom every day on their way to and from high school. And now they walk into a park and see friends working as Cast Members, or work there themselves, sharing the magic that they grew up enjoying with thousands of guests each day. I know they realize how “magical” their lives are as far as our connection to Disney and Orlando in general, and it amazes me to see how grounded and inspired they are by those connections that have become their backstory. And as happy as my memories are of waking up to new fallen snow and the promise of a day of sledding, theirs are just as happy of celebrating birthdays and milestones at favorite Disney restaurants or riding through Fort Wilderness to see the holiday decorations or attending Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party each year. Times change, the backdrop may change, even family shrinks and grows over the years, but the holiday memories still abound, no matter where you may find them.
Have your holiday traditions changed over the years? What are some of your favorites? I’d love to hear them.