So, you’re lighting candles, eating chocolate and opening a few gifts. It’s all well and good, but probably not quite what it used to be at, say, age 5, when the holiday season was magical, when you couldn’t wait to see if being on Santa’s list of nice children paid off.
We asked eight well-known Washingtonians of varying professions and ages to share some of their most magical memories of holidays past — for some, 70 years past.
“Every Christmas Day, my uncles and all their children would come to wish my grandmother a Merry Christmas,” says Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop of Washington.
“It was a wonderful time. My uncles would tell stories, and they were all so funny,” says the cardinal, 75, who grew up in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood and was an only child.
He says he can’t remember any specific toys; it was the time spent with his extended family — at least 15 of them — that made the greatest impression. His apartment was so crowded, some relatives had to sit on the floor next to his maternal grandmother, who was always seated in the same large armchair.
“Big families are such a blessing,” he says.
Cardinal McCarrick’s is not the only holiday memory that highlights family before gifts, Santa and food. Here’s another from the Nationals’ star relief pitcher, 23-year-old Chad Cordero.
“I enjoy spending time with my family. We play games like Pictionary and Scene It?” says Mr. Cordero, who grew up in Chino, Calif., where his family still lives.
When he says “family,” he refers to at least 20 members of his extended family along with his two brothers, a sister and his parents. It’s a big celebration, he says.
Does baseball ever come up?
“My parents usually buy baseball jerseys for my cousins. This year, they’ll go to the Nationals’ Web site to shop,” Mr. Cordero says, hinting at the newness of his team.
Speaking of gifts, what was his favorite childhood Christmas present? You might be surprised, but it wasn’t a baseball glove.
“I got a race-car set when I was about 8 or 9 that I loved,” he says. “Then I got a really nice bike when I was about 11 years old.”
What does he expect this year?
“Maybe a couple of DVDs?” he says. “But for me it’s more about just being there with the family.”
D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz, 61, adds her own family-before-gifts story.
“I am Jewish, but I grew up in the South and celebrated Christmas,” she says. “We always went to my grandmother’s house in Greenville, Mississippi, which was a 12- to 15-hour drive from Midland, Texas, where we lived,” she says.
The drive didn’t start until after 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve so that Mrs. Schwartz and her parents could get in a full day’s business at their mom-and-pop clothing store. “I started working there when I was 9 years old,” she says.
At Christmas, however, there was a great payoff after the long drive and many hours at work, she adds.
“We always had a wonderful time at my grandmother’s house,” she says. “She was a wonderful person and a great Southern cook. She’d make fried catfish, okra. … We’d usually leave there a week later and five pounds heavier.”
Mrs. Schwartz says she celebrates both Christian and Jewish holidays.
But let’s face it — to children, Santa, presents and snow are important aspects of the holidays, too. Take Warren Brown, 35, a lawyer-turned-baker. His foremost memories of growing up in University Heights near Cleveland in the ‘70s are of the chilling cold and snow.
“I was in fifth grade, and we were going to Christmas Mass,” Mr. Brown says. “I remember seeing on the church door how the snow was crawling up like a spider on the glass. It was so cold.”
In terms of toys, the receipt of a drum set and Tyco electric cars from none other than Santa himself made big impressions.
“I always wondered how he got through a small opening in the attic,” says Mr. Brown, who owns the CakeLove bakery on U Street Northwest and soon will open one in Silver Spring.
Sir David Manning, 56, England’s ambassador to the United States, also has a Santa story from his childhood in the town of Chichester on England’s southeastern coast.
“I lived in a house with a big chimney, and what really stands out is one year there was a trail of newspapers from the chimney to my bedside. On the newspapers were sooty footprints,” Ambassador Manning says. “I remember my mother saying, ‘How very considerate of Father Christmas,’” the British name for Santa.
That same Christmas, or maybe the next, when he was 5 years old, Ambassador Manning received his first bicycle, with training wheels.
“I remember it being an amazing sense of freedom, power and excitement,” he says. “It felt as if I were joining the world a bit.”
He also has a vivid food memory. Every Christmas, his mother would serve a Christmas pudding that was doused with brandy. Just before serving it, she would set it on fire.
“As children, we thought it was very exciting to see the flames,” he says. It tasted good, too.
But what would Christmas be without “Silent Night” and “Jingle Bells”?
Norman Scribner, artistic director of the Choral Arts Society of Washington, says he enjoyed Christmas music even as a young child.
“I especially loved the Christmas carols,” Mr. Scribner says.
As he grew up in a minister’s home (his father was a minister at a Methodist church in Baltimore) it was not just the music that made an impression.
“I learned the joy of giving early on, the biblical admonishing that we’re more blessed when we give than when we receive,” Mr. Scribner says.
Nevertheless, one gift that he received when he was about 9 years old does stand out, says Mr. Scribner, 69.
“We always had a tree. I remember [my dad] pointing to the top of the tree, asking, did I see that walnut up there?” Mr. Scribner says. “As I was trying to grab it, it fell. As it hit the floor, it opened, and a dollar bill fell out. I remember thinking, ‘One dollar; that can buy 20 loads of candy.’”
Then there are the memories that don’t fall into categories very easily. They’re simply enchanting. Listen to Molly Smith, artistic director at the Arena Stage.
“When I was a child, my mother was a social worker for adoptions, and on Christmas Eve, we would go out to this giant farmhouse outside Yakima, Washington,” says Ms. Smith, 53. “Inside were about 20 pregnant women. The man who took care of them was dressed as Santa Claus, there was a 20-foot Christmas tree, candles everywhere, the smell of roasting turkey,” she says. “It was amazing. It was like being surrounded by Madonnas.”
Ms. Smith’s memory is hard to top, but here’s another atmospheric reminiscence, from National Public Radio host and lifelong Washingtonian Diane Rehm, 69. Ms. Rehm wrote us the following:
“I can still see the Christmas tree and the beautiful creche in the fireplace at the home we lived in from the time I was 5 until I was 16 years old.
“Each year, after I went to bed on Christmas Eve, my mother and father would decorate the tree and create the Nativity scene so that when I came down the next morning, the living room had been totally transformed into a magical and shimmering space, with presents all around.
“Each piece of the Nativity scene was so tiny and precious, especially the Baby Jesus in his crib, with the shepherds and Wise Men around him and his Mother Mary.
“Of course, I could never sleep through the night, so I generally managed to sneak out of bed at about 2 or 3 a.m., to gaze at it all.
Children sneaking out of bed on Christmas Eve? Some things never change, no matter how many years pass.