Christmas Eve Traditions

I was facilitating a class earlier today on Outschool, an online platform on which I’ve taught well over 500 classes to over 2000 young people since the beginning of the pandemic. I call the class “Friendship & Social Skills” and, put simply, it’s 45 minutes each week in which a group of 10-14-year-olds come together to connect with others under my gentle guidance.

That’s me in the middle, Santa Andy, flanked by my brothers. ~1970
Given it’s Christmas Eve, I asked how many of the four students present today celebrate Christmas. It turns out, all of them do so I asked about their family traditions. Sensing they weren’t sure what I was asking, I explained what a tradition was and gave some examples. From there, they really warmed up. We talked about giving & receiving presents, playing games, eating treats, and decorating a tree. We even took time to talk about Santa Claus, always an interesting topic with kids this age.

I explained how Santa Claus is a big part of my family tradition, both as a child and as a parent. I acknowledged that earlier today I had even checked in on the “Norad Tracks Santa” website to see where he was. Perhaps the students thought it was a bit strange to have a 58-year-old adult talking about Santa. I tapped my heart and told them, “Santa is true to me right here.”

About that, last year, I posted a lengthy story about my personal belief in Santa Claus, along with some photos of my family around the holidays.

Another tradition my family has began when we were in France 11 years ago. It was there that we learned about raclette. If you aren’t familiar, raclette refers to a type of Swiss cheese that you melt in individual slices and serve atop potatoes and other yummy foods.

That’s the raclette grill on last year’s Christmas Eve table.
Our tradition really took hold once we were back in Seattle in 2011. We shared the concept with Melinda’s extended family who we see on Christmas Eve for dinner and gift exchange. It took off after Melinda found a “raclette grill” on CraigsList. Basically, the grill consists of individual paddles in which you place a slice of cheese and then put on a heating element, the grill, in the center of the table. Each person melts their own cheese and puts it on top of their chosen food items.


We’ll be heading over to Melinda’s sister’s house in a couple of hours to be joined by Ella, Chloe & her fiancé, Alex, Michele (Melinda’s mom), and Brenda’s family – Brenda, Greg & Perrin. Greg has been cooking a ham, which happens to be really delicious with melted raclette cheese on top. Chloe and Alex have stopped at a French bakery to pick up a couple of baguettes, also delicious with melted cheese. Melinda & I are on potato detail, along with the raclette that I had to track down last weekend.

Given Michele will be taking the entire family to France next summer and we’re having a France-inspired meal tonight, perhaps we should limit our conversation to being in French. That could be a fun, new tradition, right?

C’est une bonne idée, oui?

Christmas Eve, 2012.

A Mixtape – Matching Speedos

What’s a mixtape, you say?

Historically, it’s a cassette tape on which someone has lovingly recorded a set of songs for someone. Nowadays, we call it a playlist.

In my early 20’s I would spend hours creating 90-minute tapes for friends, quite often a woman for whom I had a romantic interest. Sometimes these included hand-written liner notes.

Nutty, I know.

Imagine my delight a few years ago when I found a website, 8 Tracks, that allows people to upload songs, thus creating a “mixtape.” It enabled me to scratch my mixtape itch. In fact, here’s a link to one of the many I’ve created, this one called “Matching Speedos.”

This is how I describe the mix on the 8 Tracks site: “Back in the early ’70s, my parents bought matching Speedos for my two brothers, me, and them. The Speedos were a pink floral print, pretty spectacular for the early ’70s. This mix of songs performed by brothers is my tribute to those Speedos and my brothers.”

(Note, if you link to the 8 Tracks site you will be subject to their advertisements.)

Kind Action: Make someone a playlist
Book Recommendation: Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time
Movie Recommendation: High Fidelity (starring Jon Cusack)

Do You Remember the First Time You Held Hands Romantically?

For me it was when I was in 6th grade. We were with a group of classmates at the local roller skating rink. The announcer called for a “couple’s skate,” something that involved skating with a partner while holding hands.

I don’t remember who asked who, although I do remember she wasn’t always too nice to me in the classroom. That said, I have no idea if the girl saw it as romantic, but I sure did. I remember my hand getting sweaty. I even remember the song that was playing, Michael Murphey’s “Wildfire.”

Round and round we went.

(Pause for reflection.)

Romantically or otherwise, is there better advice than this, to hold hands?

Think about what it means.

Packed in there is taking care of each other, feeling connected, and the safety of one’s children. There’s the metaphorical “a hand to hold” to show support.

And then, of course, there is the romance of holding hands.

Chloe’s “Best Birthday Ever”

February 28, 2011 was quite a day, one that ended with this lovely sentiment from Melinda’s and my oldest daughter, Chloe: “I think this was my best birthday ever.”

Wow, that’s really saying something and was a statement that really touched Melinda and me. We wanted this birthday to be very special, especially considering that 18 is the REALLY big birthday in France AND we happened to be living in France then, on sabbatical for a year from the school Melinda and I had founded in 1994.

In France, most new 18-year-olds have big parties thrown for them by their parents, parties that include family and friends. But we really couldn’t provide that for Chloe. So instead, we figured out how to bring the four of us to Paris from Nantes, where we were living, and then throw a day-long family party for her.

The *party* began after Melinda and I completed a 30-minute jog around the Luxembourg Garden, a pretty spectacular way to begin any day, I know. Chloe wanted Mexican food so Melinda found an affordable and quick Mexican restaurant, BocaMexa, (courtesy of David Lebovitz’s blog) for lunch.

Next, Chloe wanted some birthday photos at the Eiffel Tower so we took a bus there, relying on the Rick Steves Paris guidebook to point us to a bus that gave us a bit of a Paris tour. It was cold so riding on a warm bus seeing the Paris streets was nice.

After the Eiffel Tower photoshoot, we went back home to get ready for dinner. It turned out that we had a few extra few minutes so Melinda & I took Chloe out for a legal drink at a nearby bar (the drinking age in France is 18 — she had a Kir Cassis, btw, and has a great story to tell about the bartender giving her a shirt and telling her to ditch her parents on her 18th birthday).

Regarding dinner, earlier in the day Melinda made reservations for us at Chez Janou, a wonderful Parisian restaurant not far from the Bastille. In making the reservation, Melinda commented that it was Chloe’s 18th birthday.

The restaurant staff went all out, including making her a special cake that was delivered with restaurant-wide fanfare and singing, dimmed lights, loud music, and 18 candles. We had a champagne toast and enjoyed the incredible cake, before taking the Métro back to our apartment, located a 5-minute walk from Notre Dame.

Oh, one more thing about that night’s dinner. Just after Chloe blew out her candles, we spotted American actor John C. Reilly sitting about 5 feet away, meaning he helped sing happy birthday to her. Was this her birthday wish?

Really, John C. Reilly, when Johnny Depp lives in France?

Either it’s 1970 or I’m Having a Mid-life Crisis

(From July 2010 through July 2011, Melinda, Chloe, Ella, and I lived in France. I decided I would keep a daily blog of our goings-on for our friends and family. Little did my family know that sometimes I would get a bit silly with my entries. The one copied below is from September 18, 2010. Find the original here.)

Day 80 (18 September 2010) – Saturday Morning, 1970

Shhh… I have to type quietly this morning because everyone else in the house is still sleeping.

I got up early to plug my computer into the TV so I could watch cartoons while eating a bowl of French frosted flakes, or what on the box says, “Glacés au Sucre Corn Flakes” (literally, frozen sugar corn flakes). Either it’s 1970 or I’m having a mid-life crisis.

Regardless, it’s a perfect Saturday morning in September:

  • Clear and crisp outside.
  • Quiet inside.
  • No school.
  • Cartoons.
  • Frosted Flakes.

In today’s episode of “Underdog,” Dr. Simon Bar Sinister, the wickedest man in the world, has invented a device that can suck up the world’s water supply, distorting its molecules so it all fits nicely into a valise. People will have to come to him to get their water!

Will Underdog be able to save the day?

Yesterday, Chloe told me that some of my blog postings seem kind of silly and pointless. I’m not sure, but I think this had something to do with me kissing fire hydrants. In response, and as a nod to Seinfeld, I’ve started referring to pictures and experiences here in France as being “blog-worthy.” As we go about our days, discovering things like a delicious cheeseburger, I’ll say to Melinda, Chloe, and/or Ella, “I think this just might be blog-worthy.”

They seem to think that things like visiting Paris and going to Louvre are blog-worthy. Me, I’m not so sure. Everyone who goes to Paris blogs about that. To me, I think that’s blog-boring.

So, having found Frosted Flakes in the cereal aisle of the grocery store, I knew I had found something worth writing about. I just have to do so while they are all asleep.

Oh, does anyone know how I can get some Brown-Sugar Cinnamon Frosted Pop-Tarts??

Next Saturday is just a week away and I think H.R. Pufnstuf is going to have to save Jimmy and Freddy, the talking flute, from Witchiepoo. I need something full of vitamins and minerals, part of a balanced breakfast, to assist.

My Childhood Experience With Night Terrors

(“Tell me a story from when you were a kid. Please. Pleee-ase.”

It was a nighttime ritual by now, my daughter asking me to tell her one of my childhood stories. I knew what it REALLY was, a ploy for her to stay up later. Or a ploy for me to have a little more time with her alone. Who’s fooling whom, I thought. I smiled, both inside and out.

“Okay, remember how I told you about how I used to have trouble getting to sleep? Well, one night…”)

The little boy did not mind going to bed. That didn’t scare him. In fact, it was reassuring to be snug in bed and see the bright light under his door, the light that indicated his parents were still up and about.

The best nights were those Saturdays when his parents entertained and stayed up very late, and the smell of a cigarette from one of the guests wafted to his room. As long as the smell lingered his parents would be up and he would be safe.

No, it wasn’t going to bed that scared him.

As long as he fell asleep before the light under his door went out he would be fine. He knew this and developed all kinds of tricks to help himself fall asleep quickly. His stuffed animal friends, especially his bunny, would talk quietly to him. Or the radio, tuned to a Top 40 station, counted down the most popular songs and soothed him, like counting sheep jumping a fence.

He’d look up at the big blue clock his parents bought him, the one with the bright white numbers so he could tell time in the dark. Those numbers seemed so friendly to him and the blue, his favorite color, matched his walls, his sheets, his bunny, his eyes…

His eyes which now were closed. He was asleep.

Invariably, though, some time in the night, every night, he would awaken. It wasn’t nightmares, at least not most nights, that caused him to wake up. He just did, wake up that is, every night, some time around 2 in the morning, like clockwork.

Sometimes he woke up slowly, sleepy-eyed, and fought the inevitable consciousness.

He tried, in this not-quite-awake state, to lull himself back to sleep, knowing that if he awoke the terror would begin. But this never worked. Every time he began thinking to himself, “I know I’m still asleep and should stay asleep but if I don’t wake up I won’t be alert and then I’m vulnerable so I need to wake up, I need to waKE UP. I NEED TO WAKE UP! WAKE UP!!”

And he’d wake himself up, wide-eyed, alert.

Sometimes he just awoke with a start, to that same wide-eyed, wide-awake state, immediately scared. Every time he’d look at the bottom of his door for the reassuring light but his parents were long ago in bed, asleep. And THIS is what scared him to the marrow of his bones, that he would be the only one in the house awake, the only one available to protect his house, his family, himself from all that the darkness brought.

His way of dealing with being the only one awake in the house was to awaken someone else.
And somehow all the logic that he so well understood in the comfort of the daylight disappeared in the lonely darkness of 2am. The well-intentioned promises made at family meetings, the star chart of promised rewards taped to the refrigerator, the talks with his therapist. They all added up to a big fat nothing when the little boy was scared and lonely and scared and alone and wanted more than anything to be near his awake mother. Every night it was the same.

“MOM!!! MOM!!!” he yelled at the top of his lungs.

And she would come and he would ignore or just not notice her frustration and her exhaustion as her calming presence and the touch of her hand rubbing his head or his back, or her, in her tired, tired state, laying down next to him, blotted out all else.

He knew the meaning of peace and serenity. It was your mom laying down next to you and rubbing your back at 2am moments after being so terribly scared. There is peace in this world and this is it.

In his mother’s presence, he would quickly and quietly fall back asleep.

After months and months of this pattern there came the night he feared. The predictable pattern played out again. In bed, the light shining from under his door, he found his way into sleep. And, as always, he began to awaken and he told himself he should just fall back into a deep slumber.

But this time something was different.

He felt a presence in the room and then hands on him, touching his blankets. He was wide awake in a flash but his body froze with fear. He could not move a muscle. His eyes would not open, no noise would come from his throat. And still the hands moved over and on him.

His mind raced, trying to make sense of what was happening. Maybe he was still asleep and this was one of those rare nightmares. No, he could tell this was real, could tell he was awake.

Maybe his overactive nighttime imagination was getting the best of him. No, he could tell when he was scaring himself, even when he couldn’t stop it from happening, and this was different.
Maybe it was his older brothers playing a trick on him, like the time, thinking he was asleep, they put his hand in warm water to see if he would wet the bed. No, they knew enough about his nighttime fear to not tease him about this.

What was it then?

The touching of his blankets stopped and he sensed the presence move away from his bed. He heard the familiar squeak of the hinges on his door and knew that whomever or whatever it was had left. This knowledge propelled him out of his paralyzed state and he screamed like no other scream in his life:


She was in like a flash, faster than ever before, like she sensed the urgency in his voice, like she was already close by. It all came out in a jumbled mix of frightened words, “Somebody… touching me… in my room!”

She rubbed his head, soothed him, brought the covers up around him as it was a cold winter night.

“Oh, honey,” she said, “That was me. It is so chilly tonight and I thought you’d be cold so I brought you another blanket. You must have felt me spreading it out over you.” She hugged him and lay down next to him. “You are fine.”

The truth and logic of what she said slowly dawned on him and relief came over him in waves, finally overtaking him and calming him. The peace of his mother’s presence took hold and he fell back asleep.

Until the next night…

A Tribute to My Grandmother

Years ago, I spoke at the memorial service for my maternal grandmother, Gene Wenzel. A few days before, I was sitting on a park bench with a yellow legal pad on my lap and a ballpoint pen in my hand trying to write what I would say. At first, I was drawing blanks, stuck in what I felt I was “expected” to say.

Suddenly, letting go of the “shoulds,” I flashed on the word “spirit.” I had recently learned that the Latin root for spirit was spirare which means “to breathe.” I started writing down all the words I could think of that had “spirit” in them. Among these were “inspire” (to draw in air), “respire” (to inhale and exhale), and “expire” (the last breath).

Another of these words was “conspire.”

Up until then, I’d always seen this word as negative, used to describe people plotting to do something bad. But it really just means to breathe together. And there is something magical and mysterious about that.

When we are in the same place we are conspiring, breathing together. But it’s even more than that. We are sharing air, me breathing in some of what you’ve exhaled and you breathing in some of what I’ve exhaled. We are conspiring, literally. What was once inside you goes inside me, and what was once inside me goes inside you. This was a profound realization for me.

Where do I stop and you begin?

This became the basis of my memorial to my grandmother, the conspiracies that took place throughout her life and the one taking place right there in the church among those of us who had come together to celebrate and acknowledge her life.

A conspiracy. And what a lovely one.

It’s a kind of conspiracy that you are reading this story that I wrote. And if you are moved by it in any way, you likely found inspiration in it.

That’s all part of our common humanity.

“This is Not a Date!”

It’s September, 1990 and I’ve just left a job that was eroding my soul. For several months I had shunned social interactions, so drained was I by the challenges of this job.

In the hopes of re-energizing, I called up my friend Bruce to see if he was planning to go to Bumbershoot, the annual music festival at the Seattle Center that takes place every year over Labor Day Weekend. Nick Lowe was scheduled to perform and both Bruce and I are longtime Nick Lowe fans. It would be fun to hang out with a friend.

That, at least, was my cover story.

You see, I had also been invited to attend a wedding later that month and I knew Bruce was sharing a house with Melinda. Maybe she’d like to go to the wedding with me…

“Sorry, Andy,” Bruce told me, “I won’t be in town for Bumbershoot. But let me put Melinda on the phone.”

And within minutes, not only had Melinda agreed to go to the wedding, she was interested in seeing Nick Lowe!

So here we were, the two of us, Melinda and me, walking from the Seattle Center to where I had parked my car, the concert being over. We could have stayed to see some other performers, and did in fact linger for a few minutes to hear part of Leon Redbone’s set.

Still, I was trying to be sensitive to what Melinda might want to do, including parting ways.

As we walked, making small talk, she casually made reference to her fairly new interest in horseback riding.

Turns out Melinda knew I had connections at Longacres, the racetrack just outside of Seattle, that allowed me access to where the horses were stabled. Since she’d taken up riding, she was interested in seeing thoroughbreds in training.

I asked if she’d like to head down there some time, to which her face lit up and she said, “When can we go?”

I said, “How about now?”

I think she suddenly recognized her enthusiasm to see the horses may have gotten the better of her. She’d already agreed to go to the wedding with me, we had just been to a concert together, and now she had accepted my offer to spontaneously head down to the racetrack.

Clearly, she needed to halt any ideas I might be having about this situation involving some kind of romantic activity.

“This is not a date,” she said, the tone of her voice supporting the clarity of her words.

“Um, okay,” or something equally eloquent was my response.

Of course, we were married less than four months later on December 31st, meaning today is our 30th anniversary. In those 30 years, we’ve raised two kids to adulthood, started a school, lived in France for a year, and spent pretty much every day together.

Occasionally, I’ll ask her if we’ve had a date yet.

Yes, Virginia, I Believe in Santa Claus

I believe in Santa Claus. And I believe it is my belief in him that makes him real.

When my daughters, Chloe and Ella, were young, they believed in him as an actual living, breathing entity, as I did when I was a kid. As we grew up, my daughters and I, we came to believe in him as something that is true in our hearts.

In other words, our belief in Santa Claus is not in a logical truth. Logical truths are those things that are strictly true in our heads. They can be proven scientifically. Believing in Santa is a feeling thing, something completely human that taps into the profound. Again, this is something that’s true in our hearts, the same place our intuition resides.

Each Christmas Eve when the girls were kids, we’d track Santa on the NORAD Tracks Santa website. As an adult, the fact that NORAD, the organization that monitors the airspace above the United States and Canada for safety purposes, associates itself with Santa Claus touched me. Still does, actually.

To really understand a logical or “head” truth, just consider the purpose of NORAD for a minute and all the scientific reality that goes with it. I long imagined the person (or people) who conceptualized the NORAD tracks Santa concept. Was it a bored engineer who recognized his (or her) connection to childhood, their “heart” truth, was slipping away?

It turns out there is quite a story to how the whole thing got started, some of it legend (true to the heart) and some of it fact (true to the head).

That my kids would get so excited to watch Santa moving around the world tapped into something deep within me that believes in the wonder of childhood and wanting to keep it sacred.

A piece of advice I’ve long given parents is to help their children hold onto to their childhoods as long as they can. In other words, parents, I encourage you to resist any urges, from your children and those you sometimes feel, to have your kids grow up too fast.

Now picture my two young daughters and me on Christmas Eve. Each hour, amidst the dinner preparations and excitement of arriving family, we’d reload the NORAD site to see where Santa has visited. And picture their excitement in going to bed, knowing that Santa is approaching our home, knowing that in the morning they will discover the presents he has left them.

NORAD and Santa together is the perfect blend of a head truth uniting with a heart truth. I’m interested in recognizing other such combinations. I’ve read that the way you can tell if you’re well-matched with a life partner is by confirming your love is both logical and emotional, that you’ll get into trouble down the line when it’s just one or the other, or a huge imbalance.

Can you think of some other combinations of head and heart truths? If so, share them in the comments section below, please.

I think it might be most engaging to start with the emotional truth of something, like a child’s wonder for Santa Claus, and then seeing if you can connect it to some kind of logical truth, like NORAD.

So after reading this, where do you stand on the question? Do you believe in Santa Claus?