Christmas is one of those days that echos, haunted by its past selves. The good, the bad, the fun, the lonely, they hover over our shoulders, taking notes.
This is my third Christmas away from my family in Ohio. The first was spent in Japan. I was supposed to have a date Christmas day, but the poor boy mixed up the days and so I had it Christmas Eve, under-dressed and unprepared, having eaten dinner beforehand.
The second Christmas away was three years ago, in Scotland meeting my husband’s family. I saw my family a few days later, but I missed them. I missed Christmas as it should be. As it had been.
As a rule, my family’s Christmas is observed with my mother’s side. I’ve never had a Christmas with my father’s, and suspect I never will. On that side, we are apples from the tree, while on my mother’s we branch away but are always attached, firm.
For all none of us on that side share a last name, it is a cohesive unit, made of women with men brought in from outside. I was born into this clan without ever knowing it existed. As a child, all I knew was that we would go to my aunts’ houses–always hers, never his–to greet cousins and grandparents at set markers throughout the year. An aunt’s birthday is Christmas Eve, and that day would be as big as the next, full of shrimp cocktail and M&Ms in handfuls, because nobody minded for the day.
I have a cherished memory of the year I turned four or five and snow dropped from the sky to coat my aunt’s house in several inches on the twenty-fourth. We had sleds of the flying saucer type, neon pink and lime green, and snow suits that buckled at the shoulders, packed just-in-case. That night was the case, sparkling in moonlight, dark sky, diamond-sugar-soft snow there for the love of it.
All of us piled into the sleds, my brother and sister, dad, uncle, as the women cheered their charges on. We raced down the hills, spinning, up the ditch, over the road, mind the tree–the tree–the tree! Spilled laughing to tramp raw flakes into angels, and perhaps, for a moment, we were.
Some nights are holy.
The next morning was Santa’s day, and had the big fancy dinner, but Christmas Eve was what I loved best. Under my aunt’s guardianship it remained sacred, changing with the years, yet untouched by outside forces. Or so it always seemed to me.
Childhood Christmas slips in with stockings and toy commercials, cookies being decorated by the dozen, and so it slips away with age. In its place, adult Christmas gallops forth with TV shows, mall visits, a list of things that must be completed in time for shipping deadlines.
Gifts seem to forget their places as makers of excitement. They grow anxious feathers as I wonder less if I have enough money for them and more if anybody wants them at all. Better a scarf or a necklace? They already have both. What don’t they have? Seemingly nothing.
There’s a rhythm to holidays now, a relentless drag, a tug of nostalgia. We seek to repeat previous ones, or emulate them, or avoid them altogether, but the one thing we cannot do is escape them. Not in the season, not otherwise.
Again I find myself in Scotland for the holiday, this time not with a family of strangers, but with a familiar one I have grown to know over the years. Yet that previous trip whispers in my ear, letting me know what’s to come. Who sits where, what we will eat, how we’ll open gifts, the greetings we’ll use, it’s all there. My being here is not part of their tradition, but I fit myself into the cycle, the day, pushing back the hedges to make room for the flavors I will bring.
Traditions take only two years to die: one season to go unobserved, another to cement the omission in place. Restore them after a year or hear them pass from “we usually” to “we used to.” Things hide away and come forth, and what once seemed as natural as holly berries can seem alien, strange.
Likewise, an activity never tried can bloom into something unexpectedly beautiful, frost on a window, paisley and ferns. Snow does not gleam on the windowsills here, yet the sofas are warm and the tea is plenty. We grow, we change, and we wish each other, “Merry Christmas” in the season of bringing back the light.
And so I wish, my dear gentle readers, a Merry Christmas to each and every one of you.