So, Christmas just happened. Or, according to my dad, we’re still in the 12 days until January 6th.
I feel like you can learn a lot about a family by how they typically spend their holidays. When it comes to the Wolffs:
It looks like white lights on all forms of indoor greenery - a few boughs on the mantle, the Tree itself, as well as the massive jade trees; the advent calendar that Nana made for use about 25 years ago; a string of past cards drawn by me or Leah at various ages; tasteful-yet-subtle holiday trinkets.
It smells like fresh pine, melted chocolate, woodstove, the pine-scented candle in the bathroom brought out just for the occasion, and vaccuum dust – because Mama finished her final, frenzied run-through housecleaning just before our arrival.
It sounds like James Taylor (the original JT) singing deliciously folksy holiday songs.
It tastes like cookies on cookies: Traditional + one Jamie-friendly modification or new varietal (this year, it was rum balls with almond flour and hemp seeds)
It feels like home.
It’s quite Norman Rockwell: Simple and cozy, in a down-home country way, versus cheesy “Christmas exploded everywhere” – classy and understated and “Aww…” without being too cutesy.
There's a lot of joy and gratitude abounding. I think my dad has a constant ear-to-ear grin the entire week and says, "This is too fun" on repeat. We genuinely enjoy being with each other. As D said a few days in, “Everyone is just so nice here!” It’s crazy, but true.
Papa embodies the joy and wonder. Mama is the magic. Leah is the wide-eyed lover of everything, especially traditions. And we have a few traditions.
A few days before Christmas, we gather for a 30+ years annual hayride with about 50 people now. We pile on a wagon of hay, pulled by my godfather or his brother on a tractor, and sing carols around the middle-of-nowhere countryside. We end at the house of one couple – old, old friends of the crew – and Paul now dresses up like Santa Claus, and we take photos with him. Then we head back to the hosts’ house, greeted by 8-10 pots of soup, bread, and desserts. We catch up with people we see often, as well as people we haven’t seen since the last hayride, and we have a gay old time. This year, I sat with one of my oldest friends and her two wee ones. We used to be those wee ones. That’s pretty cool.
On Christmas Eve, we have a 15+ (20+?) years of thrift gift exchange with two families. So much laughter and merriment.
Then we arrive at Christmas Day...
As discussed previously, my parents nailed it with the hammers. But not only did they instill a sense of appreciation for things like hammer families, they also somehow made Christmas morning last. And, as most of you Christmas-celebrators know, this is impressive.
The Wolffs draw that shit out. Our Christmas morning takes all morning, and it really symbolizes what Christmas means to us. (Yes, I realize that that sounds like a sentimental country song – or Silver Bells.)
It’s hard to understand unless you have experienced it for yourself. However, let’s go on a little journey, shall we?
First, we wake up at a reasonable hour – including that year I made little Leah toddle back to bed because she woke me up too early. And she did, because she was as awesome then as she is now. And I was a monster – but just temporarily. There were definitely a few teenage years in there where I made her sit in the bathroom (before even peeking at the stockings, I’m pretty sure) while I took a quick shower in order to look presentable for photos. Horrible. I let my love of the camera (since relinquished, times a million) conquer the magic of Christmas.
Leah, I’m sorry. I will be sorry for the rest of my life, and I will forever attempt to make up for these selfish travesties of Big Sisterdom.
Luckily, we moved past those years of me using Christmas morning as yet one more opportunity to run “The Jamie Show”. But my family was very patient and, if it annoyed them at all, they did not let on. After all, in my mind, I was just trying to carry on the Wolff family spirit: Draw out the anticipation as long as possible so that the big reveal feels even more special.
Anyway, we wake up at a reasonable hour – this year, now that we’re all adults, it was a leisurely 8:30am. Coffee made and the Swedish coffee ring heating up in the oven (my mom makes her mother’s recipe every year), we start with stockings in the library room, by the woodstove, Leah and Jamie sitting on the large cozy, green sleeping bag that always makes an appearance for the occasion. Fun fact: The other side of the sleeping bag is hunting dogs, which is kind of the antithesis of the Wolffs...Mama must have got it on sale, or maybe she didn’t that was the inside image (?)...I have no other explanations.
I tried to sit in an actual chair last year, and Leah just looked at me deadpan and said, “Umm...what is this?”
We are nothing if not observers of traditions.
We open stocking gifts one at a time: Leah, Jamie, Mama, Papa, repeat. Dennis’s established place is now after me, to keep it in age-order, of course.
After stockings, Mama ices the coffee cake, and we drag the sleeping bag into the living room, where Leah and I resume our places on the floor. After the requisite period of getting situated, making pit stops, putting on the Duke Ellington’s jazzy Nutcracker Suite or Vince Guaraldi (or holiday James Taylor again), we finally settle into the pièce de résistance: The tree...where we resume the age-order cycle of opening one gift at a time and “oohing” and “aahing” at each gift. Or, if it’s a gift from Papa, sometimes try to figure out what exactly it is and why he bought it.
Some of the gifts require strategic opening. Poor Dennis this year, trying to play Santa, and me, or Leah, or Mama, saying, “Umm...wait on that one.” Or “Yeah, okay. But give that one to _____________ at the same time.”
Family members will call throughout the morning, and we say our hellos to amuse them, as they finished hours ago and need to fill the rest of the day somehow. We finally finish sometime around noon.
Mama always buys the practical stuff and the stuff that she knows we want. She also buys us that thing we mentioned once in passing, or saw in a store with her in April, and magically tucks away in her mom mind as a gift idea. And, the past five years or so, she has a “craft of the year” – often the most adorable and Etsy-worthy ornament you have ever seen, and which we might cherish-slash-laugh about for years to come, like the pinecone elf whose string looks like a noose in the back of his neck. But seriously: The woman has a gift. She is an artist, though she still doesn’t know it.
Papa’s gifts usually include a thoughtful book that reminded him of us, a beautiful wooden spoon or cutting board carved with love and an artist’s hands in his magical studio, and random foods that he loves to buy for us every year. Some highlights:
Gourmet teriyaki sauce
Ketchup for six-year-old Leah, wrapped in a huge box, because they didn’t have any one morning, so she didn’t have any for her eggs
German praline candies for me this year – “Hopefully they taste better than the Japanese candies. And they’re vegan! It says so right there on the box!”
A yearly edition of Scottish biscuits in Leah's stocking. The first year she opened them, we were all slightly confused by as Papa exuberantly shouted "SCOTTISH BISCUITS!" in his best Scottish accent. We thought, "Is there a significance to these that we missed somehow?"...But no. He just thought they were cool. So, to this day, when she opens them, we all shout (in our best Scottish accents, of course), "SCOTTISH BISCUITS!"
But the best aspect of Papa gifts is the wrapping: Always brown paper, and always a lettering masterpiece of fancy fonts and colored pencil “string”. I save a few each year, because they are just too beautiful to throw away. I have this vision of showing my grandchildren one day: “And these are from actual gifts wrapped by your great-grandfather, the famous Chris Wolff…”
Leah, also an artist, as well as probably the funniest person I know, always nails gifts: Funny, lovely, and somehow perfect for the recipient. It’s impressive. And, now that she’s a handletterer extraordinaire and Instagram sensation (shout-out to @leahrwolffdesign), her packages are also often photographed before opening.
My gifts have usually involved homemade creations – like the year I got really into essential oils to an obsessive level and made about 27 things for each person, or all of my rewriting of songs (which I performed, of course).
I recently saw a commercial with three adults sitting and talking about what to get their parents that year. Two of them turn to the third and tell him that his poems don’t count as gifts: He needs to contribute to a more practical gift.
I was (okay, still am) that guy. But I think I’ve reached a happy medium overall.
D is doing well, I have to say. Thoughtful, funny, and he already understands what people will appreciate based on their interests and personalities. I'm busting with pride.His Big Gift to me this year was a clarinet, which I picked up and played for the first time in over 15 years, amazed that my fingers somehow remembered even when my brain could not at first articulate why they landed where they did.
And Santa still makes a random appearance some years. This year, I came downstairs to a package that said: "Jamie, open first! Love, Santa." in the same curlicue lettering he has always used. It was my first pair of true Christmas jammies and slippers, to match Leah's.
I could spend days writing about other details, but, in order to make sure I get this post out in some form or fashion, suffice it to say that we take our sweet time and enjoy Christmas Day as much as possible. We make it last, and we make every moment magical.
Isn’t that what the holidays should be about? I hate the word “should”, but, in this case, I’m sticking to it.
With that, a very merry New Year to you, my friends.