“Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years . . . and because of our traditions . . . every one of us knows who he is.” —Tevye, “Fiddler on the Roof,” 1971.

Few times of the year are more steeped in tradition than Christmas, that year-ending season of cheer, goodwill and warm, nostalgic memories of Christmases past.

For me, thoughts of Christmas conjure up a pleasant mélange of childhood memories — seeing the “Great Tree” at Marshall Fields, traveling downtown to see the festively-decorated display windows at Gimbels, making homemade Christmas cookies and ornaments, listening to the annual Christmas LPs from Grants, eating buttered slices of Great Aunt Mildred’s Christstollen holiday sweet bread, singing “Stille Nacht” in the quiet candle-lit church, and the Christmas Day feasts at Nana’s.

My thoughts also turn to my late Uncle Ronnie, who figured prominently in the annual Christmas Eve celebrations at Grandma and Grandpa Johnson’s.

In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, Christmas Eve, without fail, found my parents and me heading north out of Milwaukee in our 1968 Dodge Charger, heading toward Grandma and Grandpa Johnson’s in the quaint Ozaukee County city of Cedarburg, a historically Germanic outpost of Greek Revival brick woolen and grist mills and breweries hugging the shores of picturesque Cedar Creek.

We gathered at their sprawling tri-level, affectionately dubbed the Johnson Boarding House for its humanitarian role in sheltering a lively mix of family members, including aunts, uncles, cousins and assorted down-on-their-luck relatives. Among those calling the Johnson Boarding House home was my late bachelor uncle, Ronnie (1937-’91).

For my cousins and me, the highlight of Christmas Eve’s sugar-induced bedlam was the eagerly-awaited arrival of Santa Claus.

Since my earliest memory I stood in awe of Uncle Ronnie, a 25-year volunteer with the Cedarburg Fire Department, so much so that I eventually followed in his footsteps as the second Johnson generation to serve in Wisconsin’s volunteer fire service, now entering my fifteenth year.

And in the great tradition of mild-mannered newspaperman Clark Kent and heroic Superman, it was a remarkable but unfailing yearly coincidence that right before Santa’s arrival, Uncle Ronnie would be personally summoned to the fire station for duty over his emergency scanner, strategically placed in the living room for all to hear.

Uncle Ronnie would rush out the door, back his truck out of the driveway and race off, or so we thought, to Cedarburg’s nearby Mequon Avenue fire station, where he would suit up in his turnout gear and helmet and ride off in red-sirened glory.

In reality, once out of sight of the house, Uncle Ronnie would park his truck on the shoulder of the road and make his way back to the house under the cover of darkness.

Slipping in the back door of the garage, dank with winter chill, Uncle Ronnie donned his fur-trimmed red Santa suit, black boots, white gloves and billowing snow white beard, all of which had been stashed discretely between my grandparents’ olive green Pontiac and an old freezer full of Uncle Ronnie’s summer fishing bounty, landed during North Woods angling outings with his CFD brothers.

Nicknamed Roundy after the jolly and plump Mr. Roundy cartoon grocer character used by Milwaukee supermarket wholesaler Roundy’s in the 1960s, Uncle Ronnie needed no pillow-stuffing for his disguise. His own girth was sufficient to plausibly pass for the jolly old elf.

When Uncle Ronnie’s transformation was complete, a bell-jingling Santa would burst into the house with his bulging red velvet sack of gifts, heartily calling out, “ho, ho, ho” and “Merry Christmas” in a disguised bass. Omnisciently seeing us when we were sleeping and knowing when we were awake as he compiled his annual list of the naughty and nice, Santa displayed uncanny inside knowledge of our lives as he chatted with each of us.

Parceling out presents, Santa inquired as to our behavior since his last visit. Naturally we assured him of our angelic dispositions, forgetting completely in the reverie of his visit that we’d been engaging in eyebrow-raising juvenile hijinks only minutes before.

Eyes twinkling with delight in the warm, soft glow of the Christmas tree, a broad smile from rosy red cheek to rosy red cheek, Santa watched us open our gifts and gladly received our appreciative hugs for making Christmas wishes come true. After presents were opened, Santa departed into the starry night, presumably to continue his globe-trotting Christmas Eve delivery rounds in his reindeer-drawn sleigh.

After a suitably plausible absence, Uncle Ronnie returned from his “call.” My cousins and I, not wanting Uncle Ronnie to be left out of the evening’s festivities, excitedly regaled him with a detailed account of Santa’s visit. Taking delight in our earnest stories, Uncle Ronnie feigned surprise, expressing disappointment at yet again missing the jolly old elf.

As we grew older, we naturally began to question our belief in Santa, eventually discovering Uncle Ronnie’s secret double identity. After that, Uncle Ronnie never received another Christmas Eve scanner call unless it was legit, and Santa came no more.

Uncle Ronnie delivered many holiday gifts over the years, but the most precious and lasting is the warm, fond memories by which he is fondly remembered every Christmastide.