Christmas Past

My name stems from the Portuguese word for Christmas (Natal) and it means literally “From Christmas”. I always thought it was appropriate because I have always been Christmas-crazy. Now, I don’t go crazy like I used to when my kids were little and I still believed I could somehow offer them a fraction of the magic my parents gave me during this beautiful time of the year. I think I largely failed, but if I was able to make Yuletide even a smidgen as magical as in my childhood days, then it was well worth it.

My dad was the original Santa Claus. This quiet, non-demonstrative man turned the holiday season into something truly out of this world for my sister and I. Every year we had the big search for the perfect extra cast member for one of my dad’s elaborate nativity scenes. I wish I had a picture of one of them, but all I have left from those days are my memories. So, I will try to paint you a picture instead.

We never had a huge tree but, underneath it, a large nativity scene spread complete with sand, moss, a river, and many figurines that my father painstakingly collected throughout the years. These were not the expensive collector’s pieces you see in Christmas stores around here. They were humble little painted clay figurines he bought at the local stores, but when all of it was put together they took a life of their own.

First we had to collect the sand and the fresh moss for the set. My grandfather would take me and my sister on hunting trips to the beach for sand and pebbles and along the wealthy streets above the railway for moss. The houses there had yards fenced in natural rock walls, a rich environment for moss to grow. We would scrape it of the rocks and collect it carefully inside a box to bring home.

My father would spread a large plastic sheet on the floor, under and around the tree, place pieces of aluminum foil here and there (the basis for the river and lakes), tape some Christmas lights to the surface and then cover the whole thing in sand, edged by the smooth, round beach pebbles. A bridge was placed over the river and a swan swam in the miniature lake where a lavadeira (laundry woman) washed her clothes. The shepherds kept watch over their flock of sheep feeding on mounds of moss, the farmers carried their basket of vegetables, children played in the sand. From afar, the three magi formed a procession heading to where the North Star shone over the manger. An angel sang to the holy family watching over the baby Jesus asleep in the hay and kept warm with the breath of the humble cow and donkey. At night, my father would turn the switch and the whole scene twinkled as if stars were illuminating it. It was pure magic.

Normally Christmas Eve was spent in my aunt Natalina’s (I was named after her) and uncle Zé’s house where my grandma would prepare a meal worth of a king. I remember whole days spent in the kitchen with my mom, my grandmas, my aunt Filomena and my cousin Alice cooking, baking, and chatting. The air was always rich with the delicious smells of Christmas and work felt more like fun. In Portugal it is traditional not to eat the full meal until midnight, so we would snack all day on the huge array of sweets and other goodies; walnuts, figs, pinenuts, coscorões (cinnamon-covered friters) ,  sonhos (sugary donut-type fritters), rabanadas (French toast soaked in a port-wine syrup), chocolates, chestnuts, bolo rei (king’s cake)…it was a feast that would last a few days. For dinner, the traditional bacalhau (salted cod) with potatoes and vegetables was served. Meat was reserved for Christmas Day.

On TV we watched the Nutcracker and American Christmas specials (some already pretty old even then) with Bing Crosby and movie classics. In the wee hours of the night we went home, placed our shoes outside the door for Santa and lined our chimney, so that Santa would not get his red coat dirty. Christmas morning was worth waiting all year. My dad, with the limited money he had, always managed to buy the right toys and make it special for both of us. Like I said, the original Santa Claus.

It was a family time that I don’t think I totally appreciated then, but I now recall with love and nostalgia. Most of my family is gone to celebrate with the angels; my aunt Natalina, my uncle Zé, my grandparents, my aunt Filomena, my amazing dad. But they will live forever in my memory and Christmas will always have a special place in my heart.

So, have yourself a very merry Christmas and make sure to cherish the time you have with your family because you wink and it’s gone. Those are the moments life is worth living for so go forth and be merry 🙂

(Feel free to share your most cherished family traditions/memories in the comments. I would love to hear from you all)

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