Christmas Gems In My Memory Jar

I wish I could talk to all of the parents who worry they can’t put enough presents under the Christmas tree. I wish I could tell them about all the Christmases in my life, that are now special gems in my memory jar.

Our Nextdoor neighborhood board is full of people asking for help with presents for the kids. They can’t stand the thought of not giving them enough. Of course, some of them are just asking for a quick handout, but many sound truly worried.

I wish I could tell them all, that no matter if you are religious or not, the real meaning of Christmas has always been presence, not presents. Time with loved ones is the best gift when you realize how much you already have. To be thankful for it, to embrace the fact that it has brought you this far, and to trust the fact that it will continue to bring you further. A new year is just around the corner!

And with each new year, hope is restored through more possibilities and opportunities to come if you just practice patience, and keep pushing through with your best foot forward. Take it from an adult who once was a child, a kid who experienced traumatic events and loss. If I would have known what I do now, I would have exchanged every expensive gift I was given from my mother and father to have normal loving parents.

The presents I found under the tree when I was very young, were meaningless. I can’t remember a single one, but I do remember the fear, the bad smell, the yelling, and the hurt. Thankfully my life changed drastically, and a few Christmases later I didn’t live with my parents anymore. I was older but still far from being a teenager. I had moved in with my grandma and lived at her farm high up in the mountains in Austria. We didn’t have much but we had enough. Homemade caramels were a special treat, and so were the Christmas cookies. It took us weeks to make them. Linzer cookies, and vanilla horns, my favorites to this day.

Every Christmas I was home from boarding school and spent two weeks with my grandmother. Farmhelpers, friends, and neighbors stopped by, and everybody was welcomed. We sang Christmas songs, baked together, lit the advents candles, and read Christmas stories. It was quieter, not as loud as today. Nothing felt forced or rushed, it all was special because we made it special.

Most of our presents were made by us, some were beautiful, others not so much, yet they were all cherished the same.

The most memorable Christmas gift I got was a wool sweater when I was thirteen. My grandma had knitted two types of yarn together, a dark blue and a dark red, from far it looked like purple. It was thick wool and she had made the sweater long enough, so it covered my behind. She knew I had wished for a pullover like that. Like so many Austrian kids my age, I wanted to ski down the mountains not wearing a ski outfit like the tourists, but jeans and a sweater instead. Showing off our skiing skills to the city folks. She didn’t like it, yet she still made the sweater for me. It was admired by many for a long time.

I remember the smells at the farmhouse around this time of the year and the way it made me feel. Back then it was really the most wonderful time of the year.

As a little girl, I wrote a letter to the Christmas child and I knew it got picked up because in the morning the window sill was empty. Later on, when I knew the present came from grandma, I wished for reasonable things, sometimes even practical items. Nylons were wonderful and so was a new book. Every gift was something special!

Of course, later in life as an adult, I got sucked into the commercial side of Christmases as well -just like everybody else. You make money, and you want to spend a lot of it on the people you love. Isn’t it logical to show off a bit?

We gave each other jewelry and expensive electronics, and we went overboard. Was it enjoyable? We hurried through the malls, and packages and bags had to be brought to the car because we couldn’t carry them anymore.

Years later we were houseless and spent Christmas at our friend’s home. She had taken us in and we were grateful. There were no presents, other than the presence. We were safe, we had each other and our dogs.

The first Christmas after that was perhaps the most special one in my life!

“I work for a Christmas tree” I had written in the ad. I was hoping to somehow make some extra money that would allow me to buy some decorations or perhaps find a tree someone didn’t want anymore.

A lady called. She needed help decorating their offices. All the CEOs would get their own tree and there were many. She promised me one of the older trees in exchange for my work. A strange woman picked me up Saturday morning, and I spent two days with her. The trees we created were beautifully themed. One Christmas tree was for a man who liked fishing, and another tree was trimmed with bird feathers. I showed her some of my ribbon creations, which she loved.

She had shown me the tree I would get. It was a tall one, an older one that had seen better days but it was perfect.

On our way home Sunday evening she didn’t stop at our place but drove through to the next Walmart.

“Let’s buy what you need, treestand, lights, ornaments.” I went for the cheapest solution, she wouldn’t have it. “$100,” she said, “that’s what I want you to spend.” I didn’t want to, didn’t know what to pick. It all felt so wrong. Greed is something I was always fearful of.

“What do you have for Christmas decorations,” she asked. I didn’t answer at first.

“We moved from out of state,” I heard myself say. Which was the truth, but I left out the part that we had lost everything including our home.

I assume somehow she knew and quickly she loaded the cart for me. She went all in. Christmas napkins, seasonal paper plates, a tree topper, lights for the inside, stockings and stocking holders, ornaments, candles, more decorations, and an angel.

Taking is not my strong suit either. I think most of us never learn how to accept presents and I am no exception.

My husband’s eyes got big when I started carrying everything in the house. I never saw the lady again but will always remember her. I had fun helping her decorate all the trees in her office. She had spent too much on me (us) and it didn’t feel right until we started decorating.

The house and our furniture were old, so much had been given to us, and so much was still missing, yet in the front room there stood a tree that was so beautiful and so out of place. It was touching and comical at the same time.

“What do you want for Christmas?” my husband asked and I didn’t have to think for too long.

“A pair of fuzzy socks.” We had hardwood floors and stone floors throughout the old house, and my feet were always cold. Christmas evening I got a package with three pairs of fuzzy, cozy socks. Santa knew me well! My husband got razor blades and a razor with shaving cream.

It doesn’t sound like much, does it? So wrong! It was all we needed, all we could afford.

We had a place to call home, food in the fridge and we were together.

Presence not presents!

How many gifts were given to me in my lifetime? I don’t know but the truth is so many ended up in the donation bag or in the trash. I don’t remember any of them.

Only some presents in my lifetime were very meaningful and none of them ever cost much.

Funny how it works, this thing we call memory!

How much joy a simple hand-written Christmas card can bring. How special a bag of homemade candy can be.

The time when we made sacrifices to sustain what little we had, that was the most wonderful time of the year, and that to me was always the best gift.

Parents don’t worry about the number of gifts. Later on, as adults. your kids will remember only the time they spent with you.

Austrian dialect “Slowly it gets quit and it’s still in the valley and in the mountains.”

Schee langsam da kimmt hirz (jetzt) die Zeit
wann´s still wird im Berg und im Tal
die Anglöcklsinger kehrn ein
Advent wird´s im ganzem Land

Schee langsam wird´s still
auf die Berg und im Tal
und die Bamm voller Gfried (Reif)
Schnee liegt überall

Schee langsam wird´s still
ja die Zeit hab ich gern
und gfreidig (zum Freuen) es ist
wenn´s Christkindlein kimmt

Schee langsam da kimmt jetzt die Zeit
wo´s still wird gar überall
die Stern sie leuchten so hell
mir kimmt vor sie stehn größer überm Tal

Schee langsam wird´s still
auf die Berg und im Tal
und die Bamm voller Gfried
Schnee liegt überall
Schee langsam wird´s still
Ja die Zeit hab ich gern
und gfreidig es ist
wenn´s Christkindlein kimmt


33 thoughts on “Christmas Gems In My Memory Jar

  1. I think “presence over presents” is so important. And I think you describe the peace your grandmother brought into your life, trying hard I’m sure to meet not just your needs, but to find those small special gifts that let you know she understood what it was to be a child with desires and maybe some fantasies. The stories you share from your memories of your grandmother touch me each and every time, Bridget.


    • My grandma was very special but not a saint. I need to write about her ‘bad’ sides and I will (snickering).
      She took me in when she was in her 60s and she did a marvelous job. I must have been hard on her to have a young whirlwind around at first but over the years I calmed down and she got used to it.


  2. Thank you for such a touching and meaningful post, Bridget. I strongly relate to your nostalgic memories. But I have taken advantage of the Christmas season sales to purchase clothing, shoes, and other necessities for my children-and now my grandchildren-and certain charitable organizations.


    • I have taken advantage of some sales as well. Got me new pj’s, and hubby got new sneakers and we got an infrared turkey fryer because they threw it at us. 🙂 But other than that, Christmas is smaller this year.


  3. Love this post and the reminder that instead of rushing around getting presents to slow down and focus on being with one another. That is what lasts in anyone’s memory. My family and I like to have a simpler or not so crazy Christmas. It helps us not get too caught up in the unnecessaries that this season can bring.


  4. What a beautiful post and I so enjoyed reading about your memories. That really was a magical Christmas!
    It’s true, spending time with those we love is worth more than anything.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I am the most anti-Christmas person you can find in your orbit because of the commercialization. Ugh.

    I love nothing more than to keep a lovely tradition alive, even as a non-religious person. But the commercialization kills it for me. It starts in August in some stores…

    The picture, the tree with the candles on it, that’s what my childhood memory of what Christmas was like in Switzerland. We had real candles and sat and sang carols while the candles burned. They were extinguished during the Bescherung…

    I don’t recognize your poem, but it’s lovely. Thank you for sharing this story.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I start to feel the same way. I long for the quiter Christmases and I feel like they have destroyed my favorite holiday. In our neighborhood they start decorating now right after Halloween.
      I feel bah-hambug this year. It’s going to be short Christmas, since it falls on a weekend and I am debating to decorate a bit smaller (and with less work) than usual. I am just feeling it.
      The poem is actually the lyrics to the Austrian Christmas song.


  6. Again you have hit the nail on the head with this post. I loathe the thought of a commercial Christmas. My parents never had money to lavish on us and yet our Christmases were made special somehow. This year I have purchased books for everyone from the eldest to the youngest member of my family whom I will see. I really don’t require anything more than actually being with my children who can join us just after Christmas. Their presence will mean a LOT to me!

    Liked by 2 people

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