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Posted: December 24, 2011 12:00 a.m.

Christmas Memories

I have always loved Christmas and its traditions; even as I have grown older, I find that really deep in my heart I still believe in Santa Claus and the spirit of the whole season, and I just can't wait until I see the "Frosty the Snowman" and "Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer" re-runs at this time of year with the grandchildren.

When I was young, we had traditions as I am sure many of you have.

For instance, the tree didn't go up until Christmas Eve. Now that I look back, I think that tradition started because the trees were cheaper on Christmas Eve.

When my dad brought the tree home, usually in the evening on Christmas Eve, the excitement was almost too much to bear.

The duties of the day included going down to the water and gathering a wet bucket of sand for the tree, and my brother and sisters and I would decorate it.

I know we didn't always do it to the right specifications, and the truth of the matter is I still don't according to my wife Molly, but we knew then and I know now that Santa would straighten things out. He always did and still does.

We then would leave Santa some home-baked goodies. It's funny. I never thought about it, but the goodies always turned out to be my father's favorites.

Off we would go to bed. I never could go to sleep it seemed, but somehow I would drift off for a couple of hours, and I would always awaken about 2 a.m., and the house would be pitch black, but I could smell the toys - such smells. I don't think you can smell toys anymore.
What a shame because the smells of a new bike or a wagon or Davy Crockett gun and hat are forever etched in my mind.

The fact that Santa always came when I was in my short fitful sleep just made him seem even more real.
We had a rule at our house - we could not get up until 6 a.m. The four-hour wait to see my toys and gifts was almost unbearable.

In fact, one year I couldn't stand it. I set all the clocks ahead one hour and woke everybody up at what turned out to be 5 a.m.

I can still hear my parents talking to each other about how dark it was outside.

Soon it was time for us to go to morning mass, and for the first time that I could remember we did not have to stand up for the entire mass because of the Christmas crowd because we were there a full hour before everybody else, including the priest.

My parents finally had to tell me at the age of 13 that there was no Santa Claus, and they gave me the old "he is a spirit" speech.

I don't know why I listened because later when they gave me the birds and the bees speech I barricaded myself in the bathroom until they gave up.

Of course, I knew Santa was really a spirit. That's why he knew what I wanted every Christmas and how he knew to come to my house when I was in a fitful sleep.

I think I was told because I was starting to become an embarrassment to my parents, since I was the only kid in eighth grade at St. Mary's that still believed there was a Santa and still wrote him on a regular basis.

The following spring, when my parents had to tell me there was no Easter Bunny, they probably started thinking I could use some help in dealing with reality. In fact, I probably still at times have that same problem.

Later, when I had my own family, we continued my Christmas traditions. To this day, the kids still feel Christmas is not Christmas unless they are with us, and seeing my grandchildren with the sparkle in their eyes after Santa has come brings tears of joy to my eyes and makes my heart skip a beat.

I had one Christmas tradition that always made my season.
One year the kids were all gone, and Molly's mother talked us into going on a Christmas cruise. So we booked one from San Diego to Puerto Vallarta with stops at other famous Mexican resort destinations along the way.

I could say this cruise was really the cruise from the deepest parts of Hell, but believe me that would not even touch how bad it really was.

At first I was excited to go. I brought my shorts and bathing suit and my little snorkeling mask. I was ready for a week of some Coronas and scenery watching.

First it took us three hours to board the ship because we ended up in a line that included seven people in wheelchairs, 14 with canes and six with walkers.

Our room turned out to be a 10-foot by 10-foot dark cave, but we did have a porthole and a toilet at the foot of the bed that covered up to make a nice chair.

Unfortunately, the porthole didn't open, which later proved a blessing as we went through a terrific storm, and at times the waves were higher than the porthole, and as I watched the fish swim by during this storm; even they looked scared.

The first day out to sea I put on my bathing suit collected my favorite book and preceded to the pool deck and, surprise, there was no water in the pool.

The pool had broken on the last trip and the promised warm Mexican Riviera temperature was about 55 degrees.
I'm still not upset, because after all, it was Christmas.
Soon it was time to go get our assignments for meals. Either you received an assignment for the early seating or the late one.

In those days I had stomach problems and I needed to eat at the early setting. That's when I found out, after standing in line for some time, that the average age of the people on the ship was 83.4, and every one of those folks were there to sign up for the early seating.
No matter how many Rolaids I took for the rest of the trip, my stomach never adjusted to those late seatings.
Later I found out more things about this ship.
I had actually seen it being towed into the harbor in Norfolk, Va., while I was on a boat watching fireworks a few years earlier after it burned and nearly sank off the Virginia Coast.

I also found out that this was the last trip for this ship, as it was going to Russia to be used as floating hotel for Eskimos.

The entertainment was nice, but I didn't know how to do the Charleston, nor did I ever learn, and I was never very good playing checkers.
Finally I started getting up early so I could be first in line for Bingo.

If you were part of the first 50 in line, you received extra cards.

Molly had to rescue me on my first and final visit to Bingo because after I had a few (dozen) Bloody Mary's, I thought I would lighten up the crowd. So I started yelling "Bingo!" soon after the numbers were called.
Actually I thought my sarcasm was funny and I really thought my fellow Bingo players were amused; they weren't.

I still have scars on my legs from the canes. Do you know that some of these older folks with walkers have great upper-body strength?

On Christmas Day we stopped at Mazatlan and spent the day at Señor Frogs, and so did the crew, which should have been scary. But I was glad to be with them because they were the youngest faces I had seen for almost a week.

I fell asleep that night dreaming not about the ship from Hell but the great times Christmas had brought me, and I was so glad that there was a Santa spirit or not.
I hope you and your families have a great Christmas, and no matter where you are, give everyone a great big hug for me.

Merry Christmas.

Here is a little toast for you.

"May peace and plenty be the first to lift the latch on your door and happiness be guided to your home by the candle of Christmas."

T. Pat Cavanaugh is the general manager of The Covington News.

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