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Christmas defined - Joel Hall

Christmas is always a strange time for me. Unlike a lot of families, I never really grew up celebrating the traditions of the holiday.

The only trees to come through my door as a child were yucca trees, or other tropical plants that required a lot of attention. If I saw a Christmas tree today, I wouldn't know what to put on it, or what to do with it.

Any childhood fantasies of Santa Claus I had were dissected, deflated, and dashed before they ever had time to develop. If my siblings and I did get presents, we usually picked them out of the store ourselves.

It's not that we weren't a Christian family. For my parents, the traditions of Christmas seemed deeply connected to Pagan traditions, such as tree worshiping. As a result, Christmas at my house was always pretty bland.

So like some great Charles Dickens novel, I find myself every year asking myself, "What is the true meaning of Christmas?"

When I think about things like the fact three people were trampled to death on Black Friday, I worry the holiday is all about commercialism and nothing else. However, when I reflect on Christmases past, it reminds me the holiday has much more meaning.

When I think of Christmas, I think of cold winter days in New Jersey, when my dad was doing his post-doctorate and four of my siblings and I were sharing one bunk bed. There were lots of bugs and a mouse that lived inside our stove that would pop its head out from time to time.

I remember pancake breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, powdered milk, and peanut butter that came out of a can that resembled a Dutch Boy paint can. I remember cinderblock-shaped government cheese and the slanted, wedge-like grilled cheese sandwiches they produced.

Times were not always easy for my family, but they were always happy for me. We didn't have all the presents other children had, but we always had each other.

We also had Christmas television specials. Whether it was The Smurfs, The Snorks, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or Garfield and Friends, every popular cartoon of the time had a Christmas special I enjoyed.

I particularly enjoyed "A Charlie Brown Christmas," and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." My family and I would always entertain ourselves by emulating the Peanuts' dance scenes and the rich, deep baritone of Thurl Ravenscroft proclaiming the Grinch to be "a three-decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce."

And of course, we always had other kids' toys, so we always were entertained in some form or fashion.

As I've gotten older, my parents have gotten a little more festive. On one holiday trip home not so long ago, I was shocked to find a Christmas reef on our front door.

I checked the numbers to make sure I was at the right house. Upon entering, I was also surprised to see our television covered in fake snow and all kinds of holiday knickknacks from The Dollar Tree.

Perhaps my parents were making up for all the holidays without the decorations, but I've come to realize Christmas is not about that at all. Christmas is really about the family you get to spend it with.

I'm glad that I have so much to be thankful for.