I’ve learned that it’s the branch you sit on within your family tree that shapes your childhood. Out of eight branches, the number of kids born to my family, I was born to number five, a skinny limb stuck in the middle of the trunk.
Every Christmas season, my mom decorated the house in festive baubles, decked out the Christmas tree in hot bubbling lights and school-made ornaments, and would hang an Advent Calendar on a wall in the kitchen.
The calendar was a quilted rectangle with a scene of elves inside Santa’s workshop. Twenty-four days bordered the outside with white plastic loops sewn under each number. Twenty-four unwrapped miniature candy canes hanged off each circle, marking the official countdown to Christmas—unfortunately, it also marked a month of impending doom.
The idea of the calendar was that for every week leading to the end of the month, each kid would get to eat a candy cane on their appointed day. In theory, it was a great idea. In reality, it rarely happened that way. The biggest obstacle was the order in which the countdown candy was doled out—from oldest to youngest—a span of eighteen-years from my brother Jeremy to my sister Lindsay. However, by the time Lindsay was born, my three oldest siblings had outgrown the calendar, so her experience was vastly different from everybody else’s.
My memory of the Advent calendar event went as follows: On the evening of November 30, twenty-four candy canes lined the calendar. On December 1, the first candy cane was eaten before breakfast, and by December 3, some of the candy canes were shorter than others. I would notice that day-by-day candy cane stalks got smaller and smaller but said nothing. My mom saw this, too.
“Who’s sucking off the ends of all the candy canes?” she would ask. “You have to wait until it’s your day before you can eat your candy!”
We all knew the rules. The problem was, we weren’t all breaking them.
In a family of eight there was an unspoken sharing principal passed down and executed by my two oldest brothers; what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine if I get to it first. If you had a problem with that, you’d get slugged, pinned down and spat on, or get wet-willied. The younger kids learned early on that it was better to accept the circumstances rather than the consequences. So no one complained while the month ran down and candy canes were missing before their time.
When the twenty-fourth of December finally arrived, relief spilled through the youngest kids—the yank and pull of optimism that our candy cane might be intact only to feel the sting of defeat seeing all the stripes had been licked off was gone. And no more living under the threat of getting punched if we complained about said candy cane. The reign of terror ended when the last candy cane was missing from that white plastic loop. It didn’t matter where it had disappeared to or who had taken it. All that mattered was that it was gone.
Later, after the kids had been sent off to bed, all was forgiven. We would gather in a single bedroom and pool the beds together or find a place to sleep on the floor.
We’d stay up all night laughing and playing card games. We’d reminisce about other Christmases, ranking each as the top best or the very worst and conspire over how early we should wake my parents to open Christmas presents.
In the early hours of December 25, there were no older kids versus younger kids, and wet-willies were a thing of the past. On Christmas day, our family tree was thriving, branching out, supporting one another, and helping each other grow because that’s the magic of Christmas.