Anyone whose holiday family circle includes grandparents knows what a treasure their presence can be.
Grandparents serve as family stabilizers. They are the glue binding generations, the link between Christmas Past and Christmas Present. They're also the creators and keepers of holiday traditions and the repositories of family holiday lore. They may be the only ones around the tree who can say with a mischievous smile to a young grandchild, "When your father was your age...."
Grandparents are also the quintessential givers whose primary holiday goal is to give everyone else in the family the best Christmas ever.
Ask friends what they remember about their grandparents at Christmas and memories flow.
"My Swedish grandmother taught me to make pepparkakor cookies when I was 10, and to this day it isn't really Christmas until I've baked them," one woman says.
"My grandfather always took me along when he cut the Christmas tree," recalls another woman.
"Grandma stayed home and prepared a midnight supper while the rest of us went to church on Christmas Eve," says a man who is now a grandfather himself. On and on the stories go.
But hold the nostalgia. Norman Rockwell doesn't live here anymore. In recent years grandparents' lives, like everyone else's in the family, have undergone a sea change. Traditions, along with family structures, are changing. In the process they are testing long-held attitudes, encouraging flexibility, and producing unexpected rewards for all generations. Grandparents are collecting their own storehouse of holiday memories.
Those grandparents who might once have spoken disapprovingly of divorce may now find themselves welcoming their son's second wife and her children from a previous marriage into the holiday circle. Other grandparents may be setting a place at the table for a beloved grandson's gay partner, their first step in acknowledging the relationship.
One grandmother in the Midwest whose 2-1/2-year-old adopted grandson is mulatto tells of the pleasure of buying Christmas gifts for him. "I got him a video of a black woman who tells stories to a mixed group of children," she says.
Speaking of the joy the little boy is bringing to the family, she adds, "He's just full of love."
Another couple who each brought four children to their marriage 25 years ago now share 20 grandchildren, 13 of whom will join them this Christmas.
"There's no sense that Grandpa is our grandpa, and Grandma is your grandma," the grandmother says. "They're all part of the same family." The couple will host 30 family members on Christmas Eve and 18 on Christmas Day.
By such blended gatherings are holiday memories enriched.
In other families, holiday traditions and memories are changing now that grandparents have sold the nest where they raised their brood and moved to the Sun Belt. For them, the sentimental refrain about traveling over the river and through the woods has been updated to read, "Off to the airport and through the skies to Grandmother's condo we go."
Even so, who says you can't learn to bake pepparkakor cookies in Florida?
Still, change has its limits. Earlier this month, one woman whose extended family always gathers at her house for Christmas, learned just how hard it is to consider revising longstanding holiday patterns. When she teasingly suggested to one of her six grandchildren that she might not put up a tree this year, the crestfallen little girl replied, "But Nana, it's tradition!"
Ah, tradition. It's the stuff memories are made of. Yet as families change forms and carve out new roles, they offer comforting reassurance that some of the best holiday gifts - shared laughter, conversation, and love - remain the same: intangible, unwrappable, and priceless.