Keith and Allegra Jarrell celebrated their first Christmas as a married couple in a starter apartment so cramped they couldn’t squeeze in a Christmas tree.

So the Jarrells did the next best thing: They bought a one-foot-tall, table-size, plastic Christmas tree to welcome the holiday season.

The Jarrells have come a long way since that 1952 Christmas. Every December, Keith heads out alone and returns with a glorious tree at least 10 feet tall.

“You never know how big it is going to be,” says Craig Jarrell, their son. “You may have to chop off some to get it to fit.”

“Getting it in or out, we’re just like the Three Stooges.”

But these grand trees haven’t displaced the smaller version that brought Christmas cheer to the Jarrells’ first home. After more than 40 years, this tiny treasure still takes the place of honor among the family’s decorations.

“It’s a cute little tree,” says Allegra Jarrell, noting that this Christmas will mark the 45th year the decoration has been with the family. Such mementos are only symbols of what’s important about the holiday season, she says.

“You have to remember that what’s important is getting the family together, and remembering what Christmas is really all about.”

The holiday season has a way of bringing out unique family stories, and every family honors those memories in its own way.

In the spirit of the season, our neighbors share the annual rituals – from pigs in a blanket to cross-country treks – that bring families together year after year.

Home for the Holidays

Craig Jarrell gives his mom most of the credit for passing down the holiday traditions observed by the Jarrell clan.

That includes everything from waiting until after Christmas morning breakfast to open gifts to the can’t-skip-it serving of pigs-in-a-blanket and hot chocolate.

“My mother grew up eating them, and she fixed them for us when we were little,” Jarrell says. “You get to expect it. The grandchildren look forward to it just like the kids did.”

With 20-plus relatives in the Dallas area, Jarrell and wife Cindy find themselves with plenty of company for the holidays.

The family attends the Christmas festival service at Prestonwood Baptist en masse, then gathers at Craig and Cindy’s home for Christmas Eve dinner and gets together again Christmas morning. As Christmas Day comes to a close, the cousins head out for a movie together.

“We’re very spoiled,” Jarrell says. “We’re very fortunate to have all the family here. We feel blessed every year.”

Along with his family commitments, Jarrell says he takes time out each year for charitable work that includes chairing a cash and toy drive by the Association of Mortgage Brokers to benefit Brian’s House and playing Santa Claus for a South Dallas family already “adopted” through Big Brothers and Big Sisters.

“It’s that age-old thing. We’ve got so much stuff,” Jarrell says. He pats his tummy with a laugh.

“I’m not missing any meals. When you do something for those less fortunate, it keeps the spirit alive.”

Country Comforts

For the first time, Randy and Jeanene Harrell will celebrate Christmas as the heads of an empty nest: The two youngest of their five children recently left home to attend Texas A&M.

But Randy is confident that little will change, with the children at least temporarily coming home to roost.

“I expect this year ferrets will do the tree and have it ready for the kids when they get back from school,” he says.

Also waiting will be familiar stockings brimming with goodies. Randy and Jeanene still enjoy keeping the stockings full, long after their children stopped believing in Santa Claus.

The family celebration only begins at the Harrells’ Lake Highlands home. Once gathered, family members bundle up their goodies for a trip to Winnsboro, where they can visit the rest of the family at their grandparents’ homes. Both Randy and Jeanene’s families moved to the tiny East Texas town after retirement.

“We’ll be there as long as the grandparents are around to enjoy it,” Randy says. “In fact, I can see us moving there after we retire, and then everyone will come to our house to see us. I can see that happening.”

Randy finds the natural sights of Winnsboro to be more than enough competition for the City’s greatest holiday light displays.

“I don’t think it would ever seem like Christmas to me if I had to stay in Dallas all the time,” he says. “There’s something about the stars there.”

“You can’t see the stars in the city with all the lights.”

A Time of Worship

Angela Robertson doesn’t hesitate to share the moment that sums up Christmas for her.

“Mass,” she says. “Growing up, we went to midnight Mass. We’d be all tucked in to sleep, then we’d go to Mass, then back to bed.”

“Mass is the most important part.”

Angela and husband Ed also welcome the chance to gather with family, most of whom live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. At her mother’s home, everyone pitches in to piece together a complicated wooden puzzle.

“My mother has a very old puzzle,” she says. “It’s a wonderful puzzle that takes hours of our time.”

Each year, the family unveils elaborate ornaments given to her children, 10-year-old Jeff and 8-year-old Mary Anne, by their aunt. The ornaments are admired and then packed away until the day the youngsters have Christmas trees of their own.

“When they’re older, they’ll have quite a collection,” Robertson says.

Everyday family obligations and the demands of her new children’s consignment store, Too Little for Me, keep Angela busy. Still, she hopes to make time for one of her favorite traditions.

“I like to write a letter about the family, but there have been many years I haven’t written,” she says.

“I want to get it done this year. I already have the stationery ready.”

A Storybook Christmas

Dick and Cathy Reader are proud to be Lake Highlands residents. But in one sense, they are very far from home.

Each now lives far from their families and hometowns, which are located about seven miles apart in upstate Michigan. Christmas, for them, has long meant packing up daughter Morgan and son Preston to make a 25-hour-trek across six states.

The trip is well worth it. Their holiday journey leads them to a two-story home filled to the rafters with much-loved but seldom-seen relatives. Arriving at their destination is like stepping into a Christmas carol, complete with snowy apple orchards and hills that seem made for sledding.

“It’s right out of Norman Rockwell,” Dick says.

The Readers make their gift exchange special by following a couple of rules.

First rule: It doesn’t matter when you wake up, presents will not be opened until the whole family has gathered – in fact, you can’t even go downstairs to look at gifts until everyone is ready.

Second rule: Only one gift at a time can be opened.

“It started with the idea that little kids won’t give it enough thought,” Dick says. “This way, you see who gave it to you and can thank them, and everyone sees it. It’s not a free-for-all.”

A never-ending card game of pinochle is another Reader family tradition, with the changing roster of players giving everyone a chance to join the game and the conversation. Cathy, who only plays pinochle at Christmas time, is the target of gentle joshing because she used a cheat sheet to follow the game.

“It’s a social thing, instead of watching TV,” she says. “Everyone sits down where they can talk.”

Even farewells follow a much-beloved pattern.

“There’s this U-shaped driveway with lots of windows,” Morgan says. “And everyone stands there doing the beauty-queen wave.

“If you leave something and come back, they’ll do it again.”