If I sit quietly and relax, if I picture the living room of the home we lived in when I was a child, if I see in my mind a decorated Christmas tree and wrapped gifts, if the morning light is faint as it slips in through the large south-facing windows, if snow is falling outside those windows…

I can be there, tiptoeing across the green carpet in a long flannel nightgown (new for Christmas Eve), peering into the living room to see if Santa had come.

What was I looking for? What would reveal to me that Santa had been there? It would be the wonderful transformation from the night before when we’d draped our big felt stockings over the back of a chair and put out a glass of milk and a plate of cookies: Those once-flat stockings were now thick and bulging.

Even my parents’ wool work socks were bulging as well and this excited me, too: Santa had been there for Mum and Dad!

Around the stockings were the unwrapped gifts that Santa left for me. A record and a book, Fisher Price toys and a stuffed toy dog in the early years, while later on, there were CDs and earrings, books and clothes. Santa always brought lots of books and music for my mother, and boxes of chocolates for my dad.

Always, always in the toe of each stocking, each sock, was a huge orange. For a kid, fruit in a stocking is a shocking waste of valuable space. The greatest mystery: Why did Santa think a kid needed an orange?

If I sit quietly, without thinking too hard, if I am relaxed and picturing that quiet, pristine Christmas morning scene, I can actually feel the anticipation of my six-year-old self. The memory is so strong, I can remember my pure childish joy in discovering that SANTA WAS HERE!

We are inundated with expectations around the cards, the candies, the decorations, and the gifts. As beautiful and magical as this season can be, I need to scale it back in order to continue to enjoy it in a meaningful way. The first step is to recognize that rituals are important.

For many Maritimers, that means having seafood chowder on Christmas Eve. When I discovered that Dwayne’s parents, my in-laws, were alone on Christmas Eve but also opened their gifts that night, we started taking chowder and biscuits and mock cherry pie to their house at five o’clock and opening our gifts together after supper. It’s never too late to begin a new family tradition.

For my mother, it is the Christmas hymns. For my father, it was wearing red and green socks or a shirt and sweater, a habit I’d never noticed until I was going through photos after he died. For my best friend, it is the meaning behind each ornament she and her family will hang on their real tree.

“I’d give up Santa Claus before I’d give up a Christmas tree,” she once admitted to me.

Over the past few years, I’ve tried to return my family to a simpler way of giving gifts at Christmas.

“Just stockings!” I announced the first Christmas my mother would spend with us after she’d moved in to the addition we’d built for her.

“It’s the way Christmas used to be,” my mother said, and proceeded to tell me about her Christmas stockings from her childhood in the 1940s, growing up in Scarborough Junction, Toronto, where her father and uncles owned a grocery store. “We used to get a navel orange and a Red Delicious apple, and a silver dollar in the toe,” she said. “There were also a mix of nuts and little wrapped gifts but I don’t remember what they were.”

All of a sudden, that six-year-old kid in me who questioned the whole point of the orange in the toe of her stocking, understood exactly why it was there.

And was finally grateful for it.

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Sara Jewell
There's no one more devoted to rural folk and rural living than a city girl transformed into a country girl! Born and raised in Ontario, Sara hadn't realized how much of an impression her family's summer vacations in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, had made on her until she moved home from Vancouver - and fell in love all over again. Seventy-two rural acres and ten years of country living inspired many of the stories in Sara's first book, Field Notes: A City Girl's Search for Heart and Home in Rural Nova Scotia, published by Nimbus in 2016.