Whether raised in wealth or poverty, or in the inner-city or suburbs, Christmas is a special holiday for every child. So it was for me as a boy growing up with my seven siblings in a blue-collar neighborhood in Houston, Texas. It was because we were poor that my parents believed it important to keep Christmas special for us. If we could afford it, my father would buy a small Christmas tree from the local grocery store; if we were unable to afford one, he would cut down a pine tree in the woods surrounding our home. Our modest decorations included a little tinsel and a few large Christmas bulbs and ornaments. My mother insisted we place a small manger depicting the virgin birth of Christ at the foot of our tree in order to remind us why we celebrate Christmas.
As children we usually received only one gift; and I do not recall a time back then when my parents exchanged gifts.
Like many Hispanic families at that time, we had a custom of making tamales on Christmas Eve. My father would buy a hog’s head, and cook it in a big pot until you could actually peel the meat off the bone. The children’s job was to prepare the cornhusks by soaking them in hot water and drying them off. Mom spread masa and tender pork over the dried cornhusks, and then rolled them all up to be steamed. It was a slow process that took hours. Over the course of making 15 - 20 dozen tamales, our family enjoyed time together sharing stories and watching the single small black and white television in our cramped living room adjacent to an even smaller kitchen.
Nearing midnight, Mom helped us change into our Sunday best clothes, and we piled into an old Chevrolet and dutifully made our annual pilgrimage to Christmas mass. We were raised to be obedient in a strict Catholic home, but it was hard not to fidget throughout midnight mass as we dreamed about the upcoming visit from Santa Claus. After the last of the sacraments and hymns, we rushed out the church doors and ran to the car. Once home, we changed, then devoured some of the still simmering pork tamales before going to bed.
We lived in a small two-bedroom house, so my parents did not have their own separate bedroom. They slept in our living room, their bed just feet from the Christmas tree. Soon after the children were asleep, Santa put out the gifts for the Gonzales children. Although my parents instructed us not to wake up early, well before dawn we boys would designate one among us to crawl quietly to the Christmas tree on a reconnaissance mission and report back to the others on what Santa had delivered.
As children we usually received only one gift; and I do not recall a time back then when my parents exchanged gifts. One year I got a GI Joe, and another, it was a football — both gifts meant a lot to me. One unforgettable Christmas, Santa brought two bikes, to be shared between three of my brothers and me. Then, of course, there were those disappointing holidays when by necessity we received school clothes. Responding to our grumbling, Mom reminded us that we exchange gifts because the three wise men brought gifts to the baby Jesus. I also remember her telling us that a gift should be something someone gives you, not something you want.
We celebrate Christmas differently in my home today. We no longer put up a simple pine tree; instead, we buy a Douglas fir from the local scout troop or church. Instead of the simple decorations of my childhood, we adorn our home and Christmas tree with decorations and mementos from our children, family, friends, and our time in government service. Our college-age sons discovered long-ago the truth about Santa Claus. So today, because we truly have all we need, we buy a few small gifts for each other, one that we exchange on Christmas Eve and the remainder on Christmas morning. Tamales are still a tradition, but now we buy them at the store. And, they are not just pork — today we enjoy a variety, including cheese, beef and bean tamales.
Yes, some of the rituals have changed. We do not attend midnight mass, but we do go to Christmas Eve service and we continue to rejoice in the birth of our savior Jesus Christ. We are blessed that our three sons will be home with us this Christmas in our home in Nashville. We will give thanks to all the many blessings from God, for all the many opportunities we have enjoyed in our magnificent America. While profoundly happy with my life today, I look back with fondness and gratitude at the Christmas’ past and marvel still in the glory of the Christmas story.