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Lessons of being born on Christmas

Dec. 22, 2010

By Anita Snow

I was a brand-new baby stuffed into a fuzzy, red holiday stocking when a nurse placed me in my mother’s arms on Christmas Day.

In the half-century since, my birthday has always been intricately linked, for good or bad, with one of the world’s most celebrated holidays.

Like many born on Dec. 25, I sometimes felt shorted when it came to presents, especially by friends. But I’d always smile when my mom assured me that I was her favorite Christmas gift ever.

Thankfully, my mother had good sense, and didn’t name me Holly or Noel as some of her friends suggested. Combined with the last name Snow, that might have been a bit tough out on the playground. At the very least, it would have sounded a little too cute, or silly, after I reached adulthood.

Mom also had the good sense to arrange my family birthday party a few days or weeks before Dec. 25. She wanted to make sure I knew that my life was worth its own celebration.

Mom wasn’t the best cook in the world, but she always baked me a birthday cake from a boxed mix — sometimes vanilla, sometimes chocolate, but always a little lopsided and drowned in waves of creamy white frosting. Invariably, the cake was topped with a plastic ballerina with a crown and pink tutu, balancing on one pink slipper submerged beneath a whitecap, her slender arms forming an arc above her head.

I looked forward every year to the slightly burnt smell of the crust as the battered tin pans containing two golden-brown cakes were pulled from the oven with quilted mitts. I looked forward to the frosting, the beautiful dancer, my name spelled out in red shiny squiggles, each year of my life marked by a single red candle.

A few days later, my mom would recruit me to help make Christmas cookies, the sugary dough rolled out on wax paper and sliced with aluminum cookie cutters in holiday shapes: a tree, a snowman, a star, a bell.

When I was small, it was a novelty to be a Christmas baby. It made me feel special.

The cardboard Advent calendar in our kitchen marked not only the approach of Christmas, but of my birthday — even if we usually celebrated it early. Every day starting Dec. 1, my brothers and I took turns pressing back the flaps of the calendar’s little windows.

Riding in the back seat of my mom’s Ford Fairlane station wagon, I would be reminded by the holiday songs blaring from the AM radio — “Jingle Bell Rock,” the Chipmunks’ “The Christmas Song” — that my own big day was near.

I delighted in Christmas as its own holiday: the perfume of pine penetrating our otherwise sterile Southern California tract home, the Episcopalian church ladies giggling from too much rum-laced eggnog when they sang carols on our doorstep, the ceramic Nativity scene on the small table next to our tree, Baby Jesus resting in his manger absent his two little hands, broken off during too much play by small children.

I loved the tree, festooned with red, green, white and yellow light bulbs, and clumps of silvery tinsel that we combed from plastic packages and refused to thin out before we draped it on the branches, just to spite my older brother, Danny. I liked the look of the tiny striped candy canes we hung on the needled branches but never ate, sometimes finding a stray one months later, cracked in bits inside its plastic casing under a sofa cushion.

And, like any kid, I loved the presents, and the fact that I got more than anyone else and on two different days so close together.

As the years passed, the birthday gifts became less important, and so did the size of the celebration.

I found that not everyone was as sensitive as mom in making sure my day wasn’t overwhelmed by the Big Day.

“This is for Christmas AND your birthday!” one of the twins I had befriended in high school told me, smiling brightly as she handed me a package when I was about 16. “Hmm,” I thought. “They give me one present every year and I have to cough up four: one for each birthday and one for each of them every Christmas. Is that fair?”

After college, when I began working as a journalist in Latin America, I sometimes didn’t even tell people that I had been born a Christmas baby. Many of those Christmases, anyhow, were spent working, covering natural disasters, rebel uprisings. I couldn’t be bothered.

But after my mom died six years ago, being a Christmas baby became important again.

And now, every year, I make my own version of the birthday cake mom used to bake.

In my case, it’s usually red velvet cupcakes, in honor of my mom’s Southern heritage. Like mom’s bigger cakes, they are lopsided, and they’re drowning in big waves of white cream cheese frosting. The annual ritual makes me feel close to her again, and reminds me, as she once did, that no matter what day I was born my life is worth its own separate celebration.

And that for one person, at least, I was the best Christmas present ever.

Anita Snow is a writer for The Associated Press.

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