In the late 1970s, when I was a girl, there was a commercial for a doll named Dancerella. I can still sing the jingle: “Dancerella, Dancerella, Dancing Ballet/You can make her spin when violins begin to play.” It was intoned by a non-offensive male tenor voice as a little girl held Dancerella’s crown and the doll spun around. The girl’s parents are even shown smiling and clapping at their wonderful daughter and her amazing doll.
I wanted this doll.
This doll had point shoes and she knew how to use them, something I would never do. This was partly because I had an inner-ear situation with made my balance a little off, but mostly because I lacked the discipline to go to ballet class and stand still except when doing the specific move madame asked for. The one time I really had fun in a ballet studio was watching my sister rehearse for the Nutcracker. We younger siblings were seated in front of a mirrored wall with a barre. We were supposed to face away from the mirror and watch the dancers, but before long, I had turned around, catching a beautiful sugar plum fairy where my reflection would usually have been. I began jumping in place as high as I could, and hanging from the bar with my arms when my feet wouldn’t quite cooperate.
Dancerella would bring smiling, clapping parents, not admonishment and a very red-faced mom.
My mom is a pragmatist at heart, and her view was that Dancerella was a one-trick pony. All she did was twirl on her toes. Even her back kicks AND front kicks could not persuade my mom Dancerella was worth it. Mom was not a fan of Dancerella.
So I took my case to Santa. There’s a polaroid of a slightly too-big girl (9 is hardly the year to start visiting the mall Santa) having a little chat with Mr. Claus somewhere. It’s a polaroid I’m pretty sure so I don’t have it digitally.
Guess what? Santa brought Dancerella!!!!!
And, guess what else? That is one of maybe three gifts I remember receiving for Christmas. There was a collection of vintage Barbies one year and a green metal disc sled. But when I think back about Christmas, it isn’t the gifts that stick out. I never looked around at my siblings and thought they got a better haul then me. Outside of a cleverly “wrapped” full-length quilted down coat my sister received (Santa wrapped the end of a ball of yarn that she had to follow to its location in the closet) I couldn’t tell you what they got.
I write this now as a mom, of course. And it does keep me from obsessing too much about what my kids will find under the tree Christmas morning. Growing up, it was really exciting to know that Christmas was coming. I do remember loving all of my Christmas gifts, even if it was sometimes ironically — like Mom Mom’s annual pair of Isotoner gloves for all.
What I really remember was being together with family. Spending time with cousins or hearing the doorbell ring and knowing grandparents were on the other side. In later years we did a gift tree, agreeing to just buy and receive one present per person. I don’t really remember what those presents were but I do remember the silliness of picking the person’s leaf from the gift tree and laughing because modest gifts tend to be gag gifts.
I also remember the traditions: we often went to evening mass, and seeing the church lit up and decorated on a cold winter’s night is seared in my memory. We also went to see the Nutcracker each year (often several times because my sister was usually in it). We don’t have a ton of culinary traditions in my family, but Mom Mom would always make several types of cookies — the chewy kind of meringues and pinwheels were always a hit. And my mom would always let me help make cookie press Christmas trees, with a dough made very tender by the addition of cream cheese.
Over the years, I’ve tried to continue these traditions where I can. I don’t live in the same place, so we can’t go to the same Nutcracker, but luckily there are so many options for that. I’m very picky about how they interpret the ballet, though. The New Jersey Ballet’s version at Mayo Performing Arts Center is pretty similar to the Washington Ballet version I saw so many times as a kid, except the star doesn’t come down from the tree and dance. But I have also heard the Washington Ballet has now incorporated founding fathers into the cast!
I have also added our own spin on traditions too. I make pecan sandy cookies for my dad in addition to the cookie press Christmas Trees (I haven’t been able to master the pinwheels). I always listen to Ella Fitzgerald singing Christmas Carols while baking. My annual “gift” to my Facebook Friends (and now you too!!) is this Karaoke version of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas.” Go ahead, sing your heart out. I’ll wait
One gift related tradition that somehow endures is that gift under the tree that I really wouldn’t usually give. Somehow, Santa knows every time when mom’s being kind of a grinch, and seeing the kids’ faces when they get something they thought they’d never get is pretty magical.