It's been a lot of years since this, my first Christmas. I do look rather wide-eyed and even skeptical about it all. And are those some scary-looking dolls, or what? Well, perhaps that early trauma built character. I can only hope. I was taking some time today to think about so many Christmases past. Perhaps I've watched one too many Hallmark Christmas movies set in small towns with perfect little decorated houses and festive shops, the narrow streets lined with banks of pure snow. But that is the town of my childhood and these movies take me back there. They are, in some ways, the conjuring of my own ghosts of Christmases past.
I loved the live trees filled with all sorts of ornaments, large and small, in every color, and draped in yards of silver tinsel. The lights weren't the tiny things we see today, but huge lightbulbs that got hot to the touch (and we thought they were perfectly safe) and, if one burned out, the entire string of lights went with it. In a more philosophical moment, I considered how that might represent us--humanity--and reflect our need to be more supportive and understanding of one another. Keep each other's light burning bright.
Christmas morning was always an event to behold. Not because we were wealthy, but because my paternal grandparents had only two grandchildren and the inability to say 'no.' It was as if FAO Schwartz sent a truck our way. Perhaps that why, to this day, I cannot imagine a child not having gifts at Christmas, and that participating in our Angel Tree at work is my favorite thing to do.
I remember, too, when I was older, going to midnight mass in the Historic Church of St. Peter in my hometown of Brownsville, PA. The old stone church with its high-beamed ceiling looked to be an ancient castle to me. The stone held the winter chill. The dim lighting added a certain mystique as Christmas carols lifted and echoed. Even as a child, I thought it to be a magical experience. That was back when midnight mass actually took place at midnight, and we'd take a nap after dinner so we could stay awake.
Then it was home and right to bed so Santa could come. I recall the first time I questioned Santa Claus's existence. I think I was eight years old. My sister and I were tucked together in our one bed. My mother came in with a red plastic telephone and said, "It's Santa Claus. He wants to talk to you." I took the phone and listened, then said, "That isn't Santa Claus. It's Daddy." That's when my father stepped around the corner. Enough to say I was stunned to silence and once again a believer--for at least one more year. (The phones turned out to be fancy walkie-talkies. And my father's friend was on the other end downstairs.) I think we adults who enjoy movies like The Polar Express are actually those children on the cusp of disbelieving and wanting so badly to hold onto those beliefs for one more year. Do it. Believe!
There was the year I got a toy trumpet for Christmas. I practiced all day on that thing and, the next morning at around 5 a.m., donned my dad's Army reserve hat and blew Reveille at his bedside. That's not a good thing to do to a former soldier. It could have ended my musical career.
I remember keeping the tree up and alive with mere determination and gallons of water until after New Year's. Sometimes watching the needles shimmer to the floor, hitting the carpet in silence.
What I most remember, though, is the wonder, the expectation and anticipation, the gathering of family, the stories that were told in front of the fire, and the dinner shared by family and friends on Christmas Day. I don't put up a lot of decorations these days. Some folks ask me why not. I usally say it's because I'm the only one here who will see them, and then I just have the hassle of putting them away after the holiday is over. I'm content to spend the day with myself, usually working on a book.
Truth is--I have the very best memories of Christmas in my heart, and nothing I can do will replicate that. I enjoy being visited by the Ghosts of my Christmases Past.
I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and hope you have time to revel in joyous memories of your own Christmases past and those with whom you shared them.
Merry Christmas to all.