Growing up in a big Italian family, my brother Chris and I were surrounded by Christmas traditions – some beloved and some not-so-much. Now as a grown-ass man with kids of my own, I find myself frustratingly trying to recreate some of those great childhood memories of Christmas, to varying degrees of success.

Honestly, some are worth repeating and some are more laughable as memories than modern-day realities:

Gingerbread Men

Take gingerbread men for example. They are deceivingly hard to make, and my Parina (“godmother” in Italian) had it DOOOOWWWWN. She achieved the perfect combination of sweet and spice, with a thin crunch that was neither dry nor bready. Honestly this is one of my most solid Christmas memories, and I never asked her to teach me her secrets. The proper placement of raisin eyes and buttons made from Red Hots was a critical component for success. Now that she’s gone, I miss those cookies almost as much as I miss her.

Ava and I tried to make Parina’s gingerbread cookie recipe one Christmas, and came pretty darn close.

Egg Nog

Does anybody actually like this crap? If so, please explain how a milkshake mixed with smelly feet could taste anything but shitty. And no, the nutmeg does not help. But each year, my mom would dutifully make this from scratch (or perhaps purchase a carton from the store). There it would sit in the refrigerator, waiting for that small gaggle of relatives who actually liked it. Truly gag-worthy.

Tinsel

Remember when this was a thing? You might be too young to have witnessed the hideous trend of hanging thin strips of shiny silver plastic from the Christmas tree in some 60s-weird approximation of icicles. If you put too many on the same branch, it clumped there like a waterfall. If you were too sparse with your application, it just looked like Uncle Oscar’s thinning hair. Believe me, tinsel placement was the final touch and had its own Rules of Order, mom approved.

Jon at 9, with fully tinseled out tree and GET A LOAD OF THAT SWEET BIKE!

Flocking

For awhile, flocking your Christmas tree to make it look snow-covered was all in vogue. God knows what that shit was made of, but I can only imagine it wasn’t good for people to have in their houses for several weeks. (Let alone near fire-inducing Christmas lights with questionable wiring.) Double points if you went for the colored versions in pink or blue. Thankfully this trend has pretty much disappeared except for the occasional artificial department store tree.

A notable Christmas where flocking AND tinsel were combined.

Color Wheel

The color wheel lighting affect accompanied the white-flocked or artificial silver Christmas tree, and my Sicilian grandparents thought this was the cat’s meow. Uplighting the tree from below, the color wheel shone a bright light as it slowly turned, projecting the colors of the rainbow. Because the tree was covered with asbestos in the form of flocking or was made from various reflective metals, the colors showed up beautifully. If tinsel was added (see above) you got a trifecta!

My grandparents very realistic Christmas tree, with color wheel towards bottom left. (Jon is the baby in center being held by brother Chris and flanked by cousins Lisa and Moe).

If One Goes Out, They All Go Out

Back in the day, Christmas lights were always colored and the bulbs were about the size of a baby’s head. Okay, maybe not that big – but they were pretty darn big. Since electrical engineering was still focused on putting humans into space, they had yet to zero in on wiring the lights so they would stay lit if a bulb burned out. So back then, the entire string of lights would go dark! You would have to get a replacement bulb, and then painstakingly unscrew and replace bulb after bulb, searching through the string to find the bad one. When the string lit back up, you knew you had found the stinker. Best completed by an adult, with hit toddy in hand to quell the growing frustration.

See-Through Wrapping Paper

What genius invented Christmas wrapping paper that was so thinly made you could read right through it? My parents would put presents for me under the tree DAYS in advance of Christmas, which was plenty of time to analyze each box intently for size, shape and weight (shaking optional). And sometimes, just sometimes, there was not proper attention paid to paper coverage and I could read through the paper to the writing on the box below. Yes, I knew I was getting that Science Kit before I feigned surprise upon unwrapping it.

 

Even if Santa is a dubious imposter, Sophia is still pretty darn happy to say hello.

So how about you? What’s your favorite childhood memory of the holidays that you still have a love/hate relationship with today?