A tradition nearly 33 years in the making is about to be wrapped in the extended McNickle family this Christmas.
Yuletide traditions run deep in this Scots-Irish clan with its first American roots in Eastern Pennsylvania, then on to Butler County, Pa., and, by the early 1800s, the rocky ridges, sharp slopes and mountain foothills of West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle.
An elder brother recounts the Christmastime tale of Lewis B. (for Brown) McNickle, our paternal great-grandfather, counting the number of gifts coming into Grandma Nick’s and his Warwood home “up Glenns Run,” then making sure there was a like number of outgoing gifts. If more were going than came, he would balance the equation, so to speak.
Whether he did so as an ornery chain-yanker, I know not. But I’d like to think the “Pap Pap” I know (only through old black-and-white photos and great stories) did so with a twinkle in his eyes.
Another great Clan McNickle tradition was never trimming the live — never cut — Christmas tree until Christmas Eve. Heck, as a wee one, the tree wasn’t even in the house when wee ones were reluctantly shuffled off to bed at 6:30 p.m.
Indeed, it might have been the most wonderful time of the year, but those Christmas Eves were among the longest and most sleepless nights of childhood.
Once tucked behind our bedroom door, Santa Claus (i.e. every relative in attendance) would perform “his” magic, from tree-trimming to train platform set-up, to putting bikes, scooters and wagons together and to everything else Christmas.
It truly was magic on Christmas morning to see the Christmasland that had been created overnight. And given that it lasted only one week — it all came down on New Year’s Day — no wonder we would stare at the tree for hours on end for its stellar but brief engagement.
Now, back to that tradition so meticulously wrapped. …
Nearly 33 years ago, a little girl named Taylor was born, my elder daughter. Her first gift was wrapped in a green paper with gold and silver stars and strings of gift tags featuring photos of pine trees and ornaments.
The new dad thought it might be interesting to save that roll in order to start a new family tradition — the first Christmas gift of each new child in the immediate family line would be wrapped in that same paper, generation after generation.
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There were more than a few eye-rolls and dismissive chuckles when the plan was announced. But saved that roll was, wrapped in a plastic garbage bag and secured with tape, tucked away in a closet corner, out of the way but never forgotten.
Four years later, 28 years ago, another little girl, Kady, arrived, my younger. Her first Christmas gift also was wrapped in that special paper. Christmas 1990 passed and, once again, the roll of gift wrap was itself wrapped again in the same plastic garbage bag and tucked away in the same closet corner.
There were no more children but the roll was not forgotten. For someday, there would be a grandchild or two, a dad figured.
Well, it took a while but grandchild No. 1 arrived this past summer. Finnegan Alan Stone, a right proper name for a young Scots-Irish lad. And that same wrapping, secured in the same closet corner for nearly 30 years, is about to be passed on to a new generation. Hopefully, Finn’s first Christmas gift will be wrapped in the same paper that his mother’s was.
And, should this new tradition survive — that is, his mother tucks away that same roll and never forgets it — and should Finn have children of his own, he, too, can wrap his child’s first Christmas gift with the same paper.
Given that it started as thick, full roll and soon will have wrapped only three Christmas gifts in 33 years, well, you can imagine that this could end up being a centuries-long tradition.
And wouldn’t that be just grand!
Oscar Wilde once wrote, mockingly, “A sentimentalist is a man who sees an absurd value in everything and doesn’t know the market price of a single thing.”
But if sentimentality is absurdism then humans sadly are a soulless lot. And how, pray tell, can a market price be assigned to a priceless tradition more than a quarter-century in the making and, just perhaps, with centuries more to go?
• Colin McNickle, the retired editorial page editor of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, now is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy. He began his journalism career at local newspapers and radio stations. A 1976 graduate of Martins Ferry High School, he grew up in Colerain.