Most people think it's a curse to be born on Dec. 25 because Christmas overshadows birthday celebrations.
But Belleville native Jennifer Freeman Talley, 40, sees it differently.
"If you're going to have your birthday in December, it might as well be on Christmas," she said. "I always have off for my birthday, and my parents always make it special."
Keith and Janet Freeman established a rule when Jennifer was a child: Christmas Day festivities ended at 6 p.m. to make way for birthday parties.
For 12 years, those parties included poetry readings by Janet's mother, Edna Beatty, who sat at the head of the dining-room table in the family's 1932 two-story brick home.
Edna's rhyming poems covered Jennifer's milestones and activities, as well as current events. She wrote the last one from her hospital bed in 1983 while being treated for cancer.
"I can look back and see when Cabbage Patch Dolls were popular and when I went to see 'E.T.' and different things that happened to me (like winning ribbons at the St. Clair County fair or joining Girl Scouts)," said Jennifer, who now lives in St. Charles, Mo.
"And there was always something about the Cardinals because my grandmother was a huge Cardinals fan."
Cake and peppermint ice cream
Jennifer was an only child. As she got older, friends came over on Christmas night for games, cake, peppermint ice cream and the annual playing of "Happy Birthday" on a wind-up angel music box.
When Jennifer was in high school and college, Keith and Janet often arranged for a mystery guest to crash the party.
"It was usually a principal or band director or teacher, somebody she hadn't seen in a while," said Keith, 67, who formerly taught art at O'Fallon Township High School, McKendree University and Southwestern Illinois College.
Another tradition goes back to Jennifer's first birthday. Keith bought about 30 ceramic bell Christmas ornaments, customized them with a "Happy Birthday" message and gave them to friends and family.
He later began making the birthday ornaments himself out of clothespins, pine cones and other craft items. Jennifer helped until she went away to college.
"We always set them aside and hang them on the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve," Keith said.
Surprise at the hospital
Jennifer's birthday celebrations aren't complete without some mention of the crazy chain of events that proceeded her birth in 1971.
Keith and Janet lived with her mother at the time. The baby wasn't due until mid-January.
On Christmas Eve, the Freemans went to services at St. Paul United Church of Christ in Belleville, where Janet's brother, Walter Beatty, attended.
"She never complained during her pregnancy, but that night, she kept saying, 'These pews are so hard,' and she was having trouble getting up and down," Keith recalls.
The family returned home for cookies and peppermint ice cream. Janet didn't feel well when she went to bed about 12:30 a.m.
A half hour later, Keith decided to call the doctor, who told him to take Janet to St. Elizabeth's Hospital. But the doctor didn't plan to meet them, assuming Janet would be examined and sent home.
A nurse put her in a room for observation, peeking in the door periodically. Keith was out in the hall when Jennifer arrived at 5:25 a.m.
"I said, "Somebody better come in here because something's happening,'" recalls Janet, 67, a retired teacher with Belleville District 118.
"Two pushes later, there (Jennifer) was. We were lucky she didn't fall off the bed. Then the nurse kind of reprimanded me. She said, 'This always happens to me when I'm by myself.' I was just glad (Jennifer) was OK."
Before long, the doctor showed up. Keith remembers him walking down the hall in red, high-top sneakers.
A Christmas marriage proposal
Today, Jennifer is a former teacher who works as an educational consultant for McGraw-Hill textbook services.
She plays clarinet with the St. Louis Wind Symphony and Northwinds Concert Band in Florissant, Mo. That's how she met her husband, Kenneth, a trumpeter.
"He proposed to me during the (Northwinds) Christmas concert in 2004," Jennifer said. "It was a surprise. The director was a little nervous. He was like, 'What if she says no?'"
Kenneth seems to have adjusted to Freeman Christmas traditions, which go well beyond Jennifer's birthday.
Keith decorates extensively with greenery, poinsettias and 44 nativity scenes that Janet has bought him. He also has more than 80 nutcrackers on a Christmas tree in the basement.
The family's other five trees include a "heritage tree" in Jennifer's former bedroom.
"I took old photographs of family members and made frames," Keith said. "Then I added lace and ribbon and buttons and beads to make them look Victorian."
Traditions keep going and going
Visitors to the Freeman home in December must pose for photos wearing Santa hats. The couple keeps about 30 hats on hand.
Janet has slowed down on baking, but she used to make 24 different kinds of cookies.
"She even won awards for her cookies," Keith said.
The family attends candlelight services at Zion Lutheran Church in Belleville on Christmas Eve before going home to open gifts.
On Christmas Day, everyone gets something wrapped in gold paper from the "Santa Mouse," based on the children's book series.
Jennifer has followed in her parents' footsteps by decorating big for Christmas and hosting her own party.
The year, she and Kenneth got married, she made ornaments by filling glass balls with dried wedding flowers and gave them as gifts. She also has begun writing poems.
"Many people say they wouldn't want a Christmas birthday," she wrote in 2006. "But I can't imagine my birthday any other way."