I remember back in the 80’s in my small hometown, population 1500. There were no fast food restaurants or kid places like there are today.
We enjoyed the simple things. Phones were still plugged into walls with rotary dials, and some of the greatest past-times after school were skate nights at the rec center under the disco ball for a dollar.
Teeter totters and tall, metal slides were all the rage, and we criss-crossed all over town to each other’s houses on bicycles, or on foot. We rarely missed a day of swimming over the summer. We played rec center t-ball, and went trick-or-treating in large groups in hazardous plastic storebought costumes, whose masks were always cracked by dark. The simple things were the best things back then, and in my book they still are today.
It is a different world now. Playgrounds are lined with soft rubber mulch, and kids wear full body armor when learning how to ride a bike. We can no longer let our kids walk or play anywhere alone, and slumber parties are few and far between, or not allowed at all. A lot of old fashioned activities for kids today are being replaced by technology.
But every year, I hold on to one simple tradition, one that we always did when I was a kid and it was one of highlights of the Christmas season together as a family.
It was something we did after going to see Santa at the VFW, after getting our brown paper sacks with an orange and colorful hard candies inside. It was something nice and mellow, where everyone was happy and content, hitting their holiday reset buttons: driving around to look at Christmas lights in our pajamas.
Soon after dark, my brother, sister and I would get dressed in our character p.j.’s and night gowns, slip on tennis shoes and load up into the car with our parents. We would always go to the Short Stop first, our town’s one and only gas station and convenience store.
We would all pick out a candy bar and a drink for a special treat. I was a big fan of Chewy Sweet Tarts or Charleston Chews, and I often ended up conning my brother or sister for a big bite out of whatever they got too. My mom loved burnt peanuts and Pepsi. She always offered me some of hers, but I rarely accepted. Yuck!
So we would get all sugared up before bedtime and drive around town to see all of the Christmas decorations. Some people went big with elaborate displays, and others put out one string of lights. We would always drive past my grandma’s house, and see the big red candles she put out on her porch every year.
It was a special treat outside of routine, and a welcome relief to the cabin fever of long school breaks. We laughed and enjoyed each other, and I’m sure my parents benefited from us being corralled in the car instead of running our usual figure 8’s all over the house. Yet I remember our parents tending to allow a little more crazy in the car on these nights as opposed to other car rides.
My mom and my sister and my niece came to visit us close to Christmas a few years ago. We dressed the kids in their p.j.’s, piled up in the car, and drove around several neighborhoods near our house. Every time we came upon anything that resembled holiday lighting, the kids all shouted “Christmas lights!!” in unison.
It was loud and it was crazy, and it was one of my happiest memories of the time we spent together. Happy and carefree, taking a bit of a mental break and enjoying the holiday spirit.
This year we traveled hundreds of miles back to my small hometown for Christmas, and we will carry on the tradition of getting back to simple things.
I know I’ll look forward to getting out of the house with the kids to relieve the hustle and bustle and holiday stress. We will all pile into the car in pajamas and tennis shoes, and hit the Short Stop for snacks and soda… where I will very likely get burnt peanuts and a (diet) Pepsi.
And as we drive around town, whether we see houses with a huge display with a plastic mold Santa and reindeer on the roof, or a lone strand of lights, I know I’ll get caught up in the magic of pajamas and holiday lights too.
I’ll see the reflection of the multi-colored blinking lights in our children’s bright eyes, and I will be one of the loudest ones to exclaim, “Christmas lights!!!!”