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My mother would busily get the house ready. One of my jobs was to check the colored Christmas lights on the white pine that towered over our white frame house. We left the lights in all year. The tree kept growing, so every December I would add extra strands as far up as I could climb.

My mother would take clippings from the lower branches, and my older brother and I tied them together and put them on the mantle and along the banister. We’d put wreathes on the doors and electric candles in the upstairs bedroom windows.

In the few days before Christmas, my mother would be busy baking to the sounds of carols on the old record player. When the travelers arrived home, there were big hugs and brimming eyes.

Dad brought home our tree on Christmas Eve, with nearly everyone agreeing it was the best we’d ever had. That night, after a small dinner, we’d put on the ornaments, and then everyone would retire to their rooms to prepare their gifts. I prowled room-​to-​room to see what my siblings had bought in their travels, or watch them put the finishing touches on presents they were making.

The older kids would go to the candlelight service at church, and, too soon, my mother would put me to bed, where I listened to Christmas songs on my transistor radio and imagined the next morning. During the night, Dad would put a string of bells on my door, so if I dared to come out of my room, I’d think Santa was at hand and jump back in bed. In later years, this devolved into a joke that featured whatever object might do the trick — the final episode featured a ping-​pong net with its two metal ends, which made for a somewhat treacherous surprise.

What lingers clearest in my memory is sitting around the dining room table. The day’s preparations complete, the dishes appeared on the sideboard: a fresh cranberry Jell-​O concoction, sweet potatoes with a browned marshmallow topping, fresh-​baked bread, green salad, pumpkin and mince pies and a huge turkey Dad had cooked on the Weber grill.

My parents sat at either end of the long table with its mid-​section extenders in place. As the youngest, I sat at my father’s left, so he could keep an eye on my manners, I’m sure. To me, though, it was a place of honor, and I did my best to pick up on his furtive cues. Sitting across from me was my father’s mother, our dignified, loving matriarch and a great conversationalist. Mixed in the middle of the table were my brothers and sisters, aunt and uncle, and two cousins. At the far end, flanking my mother, were her parents.

On Christmas, my grandfather invariably wore a red blazer, with treats in his pockets for our dog. My grandmother, a trained vocalist, always hit the high warbling soprano notes when we sang “O Holy Night.”

To me, this Christmas portrait recalls a perfectly ordered world, where, as the youngest in a big family, I knew I occupied the luckiest place.

Of course, the generations keep turning, with new faces replacing old. And each year produces its own holiday portrait, one that’s framed by tradition and highlighted by the poignant blend of memory and appreciation that, even if briefly, we’re all together again.

I hope you enjoy our holiday issue. Thanks for reading.

Douglas Heuck

A journalistic innovator, Heuck has been writing about Pittsburgh for 25 years, as an investigative reporter and business editor at The Pittsburgh Press and Post-​Gazette and as the founder of Pittsburgh Quarterly. His newspaper projects ranged from living on the streets disguised as a homeless man to penning the only comprehensive profile in the latter years of polio pioneer Dr. Jonas Salk to creating a statistical means of judging regional progress that has led to similar projects across the country. Heuck’s work has won numerous national, state and local writing awards. His work has been cited in the landmark media law case “Food Lion vs. ABC news.”

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