Memories come rushing home during the holidays. Inevitably, you’ll likely want to write some of your own for your personal diary or journal, or to include in a Christmas Letter or insert in cards to family members and special friends. It’s a great opportunity to practice writing a “slice of life” recollection about some special Christmas event, tradition, or chaos—something that will leave your readers with a sweet, holiday aftertaste.
As you get older, your recollections of holiday events tend to come in tidbits and pieces rather than longish narratives. Likely as not, your favorite Christmas might over time evolve from a collection of memories from several Christmases. The farther you “look” back, the more likely that will happen. It’s okay. You are writing a “truthish” narrative, not a biography. Your primary goal is to capture the emotions of the holiday. For example, one of the tidbits that come into my mind includes checking all the Christmas tree lights to make sure they worked. Those were the days when the bulbs were incandescent and got hot and were wired serially, which meant one bad bulb would make the whole string go dark. Inevitably, a few bulbs died during the annual storage ritual. Using a good bulb, you had to unscrew each bulb—starting at one end of the string—to find the offender. Easy, you say, just look for the bulb that looked burned. That didn’t work. The color coating usually obscured the deceased filament. Fortunately, the excitement of Christmas trumped the impatience of youth and you were willing to conduct a bulb-by-bulb analysis to make sure all the strings would light. It was for Santa Claus, remember.
Putting tinsel on the tree was no easy matter either. The modern bright plastic stuff had not developed, which meant tinsel was actually reasonably shiny strips of what I recalled appeared to be lead. You would have to very carefully remove it from the package then as carefully toss it so it would land with some semblance of frozen, dripping water. When you’re too short to reach and correct an errant strand, you need the right flip of the wrist to plant a strand in a “dripping” position as close to the end of a branch as possible. And you had to be careful because the string of lead coming into contact with the base of a light might cause a short and cazoooooot, you’re back to “finding-the-dead-bulb” game.
It wasn’t until the proliferation of LED tree lights that we saw the statistics of burned up Christmas houses take a precipitous drop. What a way to remember Christmas! “Grandma baked cookies, then we baked the house.”
Ornaments, too, presented special challenges. They were made of glass . . . rather delicate glass. Dropping them, even on carpet, didn’t assure they would survive. At a very young age I learned how to pick up shattered chards without cutting my fingers. Decorating the tree thus required the skills of a surgeon, but in the end the investment of time made for a truly delightful Christmas tree. Only once do I recall an excited collie named Coco bringing the whole carefully “coifed” affair crashing down. I think that might also have been when I first learned some nifty swear words from my dad.
So if you’re thinking about writing about a favorite Christmas you might find it easier to write about your favorite things about Christmas—going out and finding your own tree, or Grandma’s favorite—and perhaps spiked—punch, baking and decorating cookies, wrapping presents, or sneaking around the house in search of Mom’s hiding places for presents. I recall finding under my parents’ bed a really nifty gas station set. I was probably six or seven. I’d sneak under the bed and play with it in the days before Christmas Eve. You would have thought they would have wrapped it!
Like the song “It Was a Very Good Year,” recollections of Christmas come in segments, starting with your first recollections and thinning out to the very special ones as you got older. Then came those Christmases of making it special for your own children.
One of my favorites? During my university years. I joined my publisher and his wife on a visit to their friend’s place out in the country. She hailed from England where she trained as a concert pianist. Her husband had built her a proper English residence, complete with a fireplace you could walk into and a huge picture window that took up most of one wall and opened onto a large greenhouse, beyond which quarter-sized snowflakes gently fell while we enjoyed some real plum pudding and a crackling fire. But what really made the morning special were the two grand pianos nestled together in front of the picture window and John, who had taught himself how to play some twenty years previous, and Bonita playing duets as the snow fell and fire crackled.
So if you’re going to write about Christmas, hone in on a very special one and bring it back to life. Christmas is a topic that lets you play to all five of the senses—from the kitchen smells to crackling of the fireplace to the touch of a snowflake landing on your tongue.
The trap you might fall into is writing a chronological narrative. You want to focus on the emotions and senses, not merely the facts. Descriptions need to be tinged with the smells and tastes and sounds of the season. Because you want to capture the specialness of the time you might avoid beginning with sentences like, “Marley was dead to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that.” For me? I might begin with . . .
“The words stealth and child don’t really belong in the same sentence. Childhood tends to be a noisy time of life. Intentions have nothing to do with it. Lacking grace and coordination, a child would have a hard time sneaking up on a freight train. But there I was, probably on my fourth excursion—that had to quickly executed as my mother fiddled with the laundry in the basement—into the wilderness of my family’s small bungalow in search of Christmas presents.”
Limit you holiday to five- or six-hundred words. That will force you watch your word count as you write and thus self-edit to achieve the necessary tightness in your prose. Touch on the five senses and likely your prose will touch on the emotions of your readers.