I was around four years old.
Christmas was right around the corner, and I could barely sleep at night thinking of all the festivities and presents to come. I couldn’t wait for our Christmas Eve party and the two kinds of candy I only ever saw at Christmastime — ribbon candy, and mints from my uncle’s mint tree.
That’s what Uncle Stan told us every year, that he had a special mint tree in his yard that produced pastel green pillow mints, and he promised to bring them to us every Christmas.
Christmas Eve was a very big deal for my family, not just because Santa was coming that night, but because EVERYONE was coming that night. Our family party was enormous and it was a tradition that everyone looked forward to.
One year we managed to squeeze nearly 80 relatives into our small house, and it was standing room only!
On the morning of Christmas Eve, all of my brothers and sisters and I were expected to jump into clean-the-house mode. Everything was put in its place, or tucked away.
Floors were swept and vacuumed. Surfaces were dusted.
Christmas music filled the house, and all the twinkly Christmas lights inside and out were plugged in and allowed to glow even though the sun was still shining. Excitement filled the air as we all made our final party preparations and were sent to our rooms to put on our holiday clothes.
One telltale sign that guests were about to start arriving was the status of the kitchen table.
First it was spread with a paper holiday tablecloth, and then it was pushed out of the middle of the kitchen and up against the wall, where it would receive dish after dish of food and goodies ready for the taking.
Noodle kugel. Marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes.
Dinner rolls. Nuts and oranges and apples.
And… two glass candy dishes waiting to be filled.
Soon my Aunt Lara would fill one dish with ribbon candy, and I’d be right there with my little fingers ready to sneak a few pieces before the guests arrived. The other candy dish would remain empty until Uncle Stan arrived.
I started to hear car after car arrive in the driveway, and the anticipation was almost too much. Loud, happy greetings across the kitchen.
Winter coats shed and whisked away to my parents’ room. Gift after gift after gift placed under the Christmas tree.
People everywhere, laughing and talking loudly. I fought my way through the sea of legs, trying to get over to the table to see if Uncle Stan had arrived yet.
When I finally got there, I found the candy dish still empty.
“Merry Christmas, Little Girl!” I heard my uncle say from right behind me. He bent down to give me a hug.
I could smell the cigarette smoke on his black wool coat and feel the scratchy stubble of his whiskers.
He was happy to see me, and I was happy to see him, but… but why was the candy dish still empty? Did he forget to bring the mints?
Was something wrong with his tree? He pretended he didn’t notice the disappointment on my face. Then a grin came over his face and I saw him reach into the inside pocket of his coat.
He pulled out a bag full of pastel green mints.
“Your mint tree is still alive!!”
He dumped the contents of the bag into the candy dish, saving the final few for my little hand. As I popped a mint into my mouth, he gave me the biggest smile.
I reached into the two candy dishes to grab a few more pieces of ribbon candy and mints, and then I dashed off to the living room to wonder at all the packages under the tree.
What I didn’t realize then was that some of the greatest gifts in those years were not found wrapped in bright paper under the tree. They were the gifts of tradition, in the form of candy ribbons, and from the branches of a mint tree.