y memories of Christmas almost all take place in one particular setting: the first floor of the Minneapolis house I lived in for my entire childhood. My parents bought that house a year before I was born, and I still think of it as home — even if our playroom in the basement is now full of exercise equipment, our den now my dad’s office, and my bedroom has become my mom’s music room. Our memories still inhabit these rooms, even if none of our furniture does.
When I was a kid, the whole family gathered in the living room for Christmas, every year. We opened presents in the morning, then in the afternoon the kids played while the adults napped, the smell of turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie filling the house. Now that we’re adults, my parents’ house is still Christmas Day headquarters, and as the years have gone by we’ve watched our kids grow from exuberant toddlers exclaiming over presents to long-legged teens who want gift cards. We all change and grow, but the space is still there.
My whole life, I have spent Christmas Day with my family at that house — until 2020, of course. That year, my partner and son and I went around to everyone’s house to wave from a distance and drop off presents and many pies, then we spent the day playing “Mario Party” and consuming still yet more pie.
We hoped it would be just one year, and indeed for a while there seemed to be hope for a normal Christmas in 2021. Then the Grinch came, dropping new variants into chimneys at houses around the country — including my brothers’. As for Jordan, Dash and I, we were asked over for a brief visit, masked and distanced. We sat on the couch and chatted while Dash methodically built a Lego Avengers mech, my parents sitting across from in stiff-backed chairs as if they’d glued themselves there, arms propped on the hard wooden arms, faces obscured by KN95s. I texted a picture of the scene to my brother who responded, “What dystopian hellscape is this?”
My parents had done their best, of course. There was still a tree, the colored lights casting their gentle glow across the room while the air was suffused with its scent. There was still the same Christmas music, including, of course, the best Christmas album ever: “John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together.” And while I wasn’t there, I know the previous night my dad sat in his reading chair next to the stereo and listened to the recording of “A Christmas Carol” that he had taped off MPR years ago, because he does that every year.
As we sat in the living room on Christmas morning, my dad, voice muffled by the mask, asked, “So, what do you remember most about our past Christmases?”
I’m not great with memory; it frustrates me how I can remember pretty much every embarrassing thing I’ve ever done and, of course, every mean thing anyone said to me in middle school, but so much of the other stuff has been eroded away by time. My early Christmas memories look a lot like the 8mm films my dad shot; when we were growing up my parents would set up a projector in the living room and we’d watch our family movies, birthday parties and baby ducks, and the yearly Christmas footage of two happy little kids in footed pajamas opening presents. It was the ’70s, and there was a lot of mustard and green in the living room, and a lot of plastic “Sesame Street” and “Star Wars” items under the tree. The tree itself was also plastic; every year we’d build it, piece by piece, sticking the pegs of the smooth but itchy branches into the metal trunk.
Later, the living room changed, the wallpaper replaced with paint, the carpet with hardwood floors and the mustard and green couch replaced with one covered in more jubilant red and blues. The gold curtains were simply taken down, because some things should not be replaced. And the plastic Christmas tree disappeared in favor of a real one, so now we knew what Christmas actually was supposed to smell like. Our family grew; my aunt and cousin moved to Minneapolis and were folded into our family Christmas.
I remember my dad outside in his winter coat and work gloves, breath coming out in puffs, winding garlands on the stair rails and lights on the bushes in front of our house. I remember my mom’s table-decorating phase, and her Print Shop-designed gift certificate phase, and I remember the spread of muffins and cookies from Wuollet’s, every year. I remember sitting in the living room, the Muppets singing in the background, the fire dancing in the fireplace — my whole family, together.
We grew up, we moved out. My mom decided it was finally safe to buy a white couch. For a while I lived out of state, but still every year I came home for Christmas; every year the family gathered in the same spot, the same smells and lighting schemes and the same muffins and cookies. And then the new generation arrived — my nieces and my own son, and Christmas changed again. Now we were the ones taking afternoon naps.
Individual memories are still thin, though. Our family’s most memorable Christmas event came when my mom was going through her wrapping phase, and as my dad struggled with a particularly well-tied ribbon, his hand flew back and smacked my brother in the jaw, hard. Fortunately, one of my brother’s best friends was in medical school at the time, and also was Jewish, so he didn’t mind making house calls on Christmas.
Mostly, what remains for me is the feeling of Christmas at my parents’ house, not year by year, but the every-yearness of it. That house contains the ghosts of almost 50 Christmases past and they are all with me, every December 25th — even if I spend the whole day at my own house playing “Mario Party” and eating pie.
So when my dad asked what I remember about past Christmases, I said, “I remember this space.” Not just the place itself, but the space they created for our family, the lights and the smells and the music and the fire in the fireplace, the bakery-bought muffins and homemade pies, the routines of the day that came to feel like our own family rituals. And of course, most of all, the way it embraced and defined our family unit, even as it grew and changed.
I know my childhood home won’t be physically there forever, that that place and the memories it holds will belong to another family, who will create their own spaces there. But the feeling of the space my parents made for our family — the warmth, the comfort, the routines and rituals — will always be there, and it’s a space we can always return to in our heads and our hearts.
So I try to build these routines throughout the year, things my son can always count on, things he will always remember. On December 23rd (-ish) we have what we still call Dashie and Mommy Christmas, with our own rituals and routines — we get doughnuts, we build a gingerbread house from a kit, we try to put costumes on the cats. It started as just the two of us, then we folded Jordan in. We had room.
This is what Christmas is to me; the feeling my parents created for us, the feeling I try to create for my son. Everything they did, every year, showed us that we were loved, we were safe, we were home.
And that, to me, is Christmas.
Anne Ursu is a writer in Minneapolis.
Every year, in deep winter, the Star Tribune commissions an original piece from a notable local author. It’s our holiday gift to you, the readers. This year’s essay is by Anne Ursu, whose books for young readers have been featured on NPR; named as among the best books of the year by Parents Magazine, Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and Amazon.com; and selected for the National Book Award Longlist. She also has won a Minnesota Book Award and a McKnight Fellowship. Her most recent novel, “The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy,” was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize. She grew up playing t-ball in Kenwood Park and skating on Lake of the Isles, and now she lives within walking distance of Wild Rumpus Books with her fiancé and son.