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Amy Choate-Nielsen: A quest for Christmas past — and wishing for the good old days

Published: Monday, Dec. 24 2012 12:00 p.m. MST

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I love the smell of freshly cut pine trees, the gentle crunch of homemade toffee, the shapes in paper snowflakes and the sound of French horns heralding the advent of Christmas.

I love Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" and ice skating rinks and caroling and taking long drives at night to see the lights. I love the richness of red and gold on display and the hint of anticipation that fills the month of December.

But at this stage in my life, with children and my own irrepressible desire to instill the magic of the season in their young minds, I am flummoxed by Christmas.

I am not sure what the problem is. Perhaps it is because I have no way to gauge what memories they will hold dear, or what senses and experiences will come to define the season for them. Or perhaps it is because my expectations are unreasonable. Either way, I feel like I am missing the mark.

I want the magic, and the splendor and the vision of sugarplums dancing in their heads with the sweetness of the true meaning of Christmas filling our home, and I want it for at least 25 days in December. I want peace and quiet, sharing and forgiving — and copious amounts of meaningful family time not interrupted by tantrums or fist fights or whining about what toy Santa Claus had better bring.

I want traditions and trays of freshly made candy cooling around my kitchen.

But the reality is, my decorations aren't splendorous, we've had more fighting than friendship and family time is hard to find. We've had lots of conversations about what Santa will bring, and I thought briefly about making some homemade candy, then dismissed the idea just as quickly because I didn't want to start measuring out copious amounts of sugar.

The candy idea came from my grandmother, Fleeta Choate, who died before I was born. Divinity was her specialty. From what I hear from her two children, my dad and uncle, Fleeta made divinity every year. She dipped cherries in chocolate and made a host of food — her cookbook is filled with recipes for nut rolls and old-fashioned sticky sweets held together with orange juice and honey.

I want to have traditions like that — traditions my children can rattle off and reminisce about and relive the wonder of this season. But I can't decide what fits our family best. Is it the elf on a shelf? Saving pennies in a jar? Breakfast with Santa? Advent calendars? Singing along to "The Messiah" by Handel?

Trying something new each year doesn't count as a tradition, and so far, I've dabbled in a few of the above, but nothing has really stuck. It takes time, I suppose.

My dad's family tradition involved divinity and getting simple gifts of socks and underwear for Christmas. They decorated their tree with lights and popcorn and fresh cranberries, and to him, it was magical. Santa filled their stockings with fruit and nuts, and Fleeta reused all of the wrapping paper. Each year, the pieces of paper got smaller and smaller, as she cut off the parts that were torn and saved the rest.

They had a real tree and believed in Santa. I grew up with an artificial tree and no Santa. But I still loved Christmas.

Our ornaments were a collection of memories, knick-knacks and homemade trinkets that never matched. We still received oranges and nuts and pennies in our stockings, but Santa was never a big part of it. And I spent hours playing outside in the snow, mixing sugar and vanilla with the frozen water to make my own kind of snow cone.

In my childhood, the holiday season was filled with singing and carols, frozen air outside and warm cozy nights inside. I don't remember much fuss about taking pictures with St. Nick at the mall or sending Christmas cards every year.

We certainly didn't have an elf on our shelf, but I thought the season was wonderful; my fantasy of sugar plum fairies and dancing snowflakes fulfilled.

Perhaps the magic of Christmas isn't something you can force. Perhaps the wonder of it is, the simpler the celebration, the more meaningful the experience, and I must wait and see what seeds grow in my children's hearts instead of expecting a harvest of holiday appreciation after a handful of years.

Perhaps my path toward Christmas splendor is marked by patience and simplicity.

And along the way, maybe we'll cultivate a few traditions of our own.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.

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