In A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Dylan Thomas tells us “One Christmas was so much like another…” but I am not sure I agree. Rituals shift, evolve. Time passes. Children grow. We carry with us our own Christmases populated with younger versions of ourselves as children, teenagers, young adults, and our current selves. It’s a telescoping time of memory and expectation, adorned with pristine wrapping paper crumpled in an instant, a roll of scotch tape, whose careful tab has disappeared again, thank you notes yet unwritten, reproaching me as the year ends. In our family, December carries in my mind the smell of latkes and narcissus and coffee. It is the season of my birthday and of having the house full again. Recently, I stood facing our kitchen window washing up one more meal, watching the snow cascade, and I wondered what Christmas will be like when/if our children have children. I’m in the middle—a mom, still, of course, but I can see, even now, the day will come when even Atticus is out in the world, and I imagine I will long for the holidays.
I did not set up our crèche this year. It was our parents’ crèche, and I love it. The ritual of unpacking it from its original box—circa 1949—pleases me, each figure carefully wrapped in newspaper: the regulars of course—Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, animals and Three Wiseman, plus a wooden manger and turquoise faux straw that I suspect once lined an Easter basket and now serves as baby Jesus’s bedding. Packed with the crèche are two lithe ceramic gymnasts, one with a hoop and the other with a ball. When we first moved to Ohio, our daughters studied rhythmic gymnastics, and we found these ornaments on Green Road in a shop devoted to Christmas, the kind of store so crammed with ornaments that shopping there with anyone under the age of twelve fills an adult with dread. This year, the crèche and the gymnasts all stayed in the attic because I do not trust our cats, who delight in knocking ornaments off the tree, and I could not figure out where to put the crèche to keep it safe from marauding cats. “Uh oh,” I fretted several days ago. “Is this what happens as children age? We skip over the traditions, ignore the details?” Down the rabbit hole of memory I descended—all the Christmases past.
Because my older sister once apocryphally tore open every present, our parents locked the French doors to the living room each Christmas Eve once Santa “delivered” our gifts. We waited, my brother, sister and I, at the top of the stairs for Mom and Dad to wake up and escort us downstairs. Stockings first, then church, then breakfast, opening presents, lunch at Grannie’s with my mother’s side of the family, then home to pack to drive to Montclair to Grammie and Big Dada’s and Daddy’s side of the family—smaller, less formal. There was the famous year my brother flung out of the living room, an angry adolescent declaring in a surly snarl: “I didn’t get anything I wanted.” His spoiled anger curdled that Christmas for all of us. Now, the only other person who might recall that moment is my sister. I should ask her if she remembers it as I do—my mother’s disappointed eyes, my father’s shrug, my wondering how we would go on from that tsunami. Of course we did, and from the worse one later when we lost him all together.
I remember Seth’s first Christmases with us. My Jewish boyfriend locked in WASPY celebrations, replete with Bremmer Wafers and caviar, Triscuit, cheese lace, and too little real food. What a good gift-giver he proved to be, wrapping packages meticulously as if he was born to inhabit wrapping counter in an elegant pre-war department store. The first year we were in love, he made Lamston, a gorgeous brown teddy bear with eyes painted Seth’s own blue-green shade, for me. He sewed feverishly, closeted upstairs in my brother’s old bedroom, the bear ultimately wrapped in a box within a box within a box, a glorious surprise, a labor of love. There was another Christmas that my Honda died in Brooklyn, loaded with gifts. We ate Mexican Food in the brownstone in Seth’s pre-fashionable Park Slope neighborhood, and the next morning, Seth’s cousin, Steve, instructed us to dry to spark plugs with a hair dryer. Voila, the suggestion worked and off we drove to Philadelphia. We stopped at the King of Prussia Mall, turning off the car without remembering we weren’t supposed to. What relief when it started. The first Christmas that we were married we took our tiny kitten, Pandora, with us to Mom’s house. She skittered under the radiator in the living room, beyond reach and spent most of the holiday there.
When the children came, Seth bought a mantle and created a make-believe fireplace in our second Manhattan apartment because I wanted to be able to hang their stockings from it. Those years are a blur of bright eyes, trying to anticipate our daughters’ wishes and forging our own traditions. There was the terrible moment when I tucked Cordelia, perhaps age four, into bed on Christmas Eve, bent close to kiss her, and heard her murmur how happy she would be when Santa left a Rosita doll under the tree. Amazon did not yet exist, and even if it had, it was too late. I held my breath waiting for the disappointment, but it didn’t come; whatever was there was enough. Rosita arrived for her birthday in February. We put up real trees and strung ornaments from twinkle lights stretched around the perimeter of our living room. We celebrated Christmas mornings with Bill and ate Chinese food at night with neighbors. I was determined my children would not feel as rushed as I had felt. The next day, we would make the trek to Philadelphia to see my mom and celebrate again with more presents and more family. I’d squash the rush of selfishness I felt as we clambered back into the car to drive back to the city, leaving Mom alone.
In Ohio, we gave into our holiday fantasies, draping garland up the bannister, arranging plush animals, who played holiday tunes down the stairs—every one of Santa’s reindeer, Santa on a motorcycle, a piano playing snowman. We hung ornaments from the dining room chandelier, each one labeled with a child’s initials. We welcomed a young son, so as the magic faded for our tweens, it was rekindled because there was still a believer in the house.
Once the girls left for college, their Christmas return felt celebratory, occasionally coinciding with Hanukkah, sometimes not. But the years march along. There was a very sad Christmas some years ago, our hearts with a golden-haired girl whose sledding accident took her life. And this year, in the midst of preparations—inflatables on the lawn, lights hung from the eaves, Seth broke his rib. The sophomores, invited for a pizza dinner, helped me trim the tree, but I realized a funny thing. Seth is the engine that drives the holidays. He is the maker of joy, the one who inspires me to plant the paper white bulbs, wrap gifts with more than paper and initials scrawled with a Sharpie. His injury, not life-threatening but incapacitating, deflated my own holiday spirit. Snow fell. The girls came home; we had Christmas eve with friends; we ordered Chinese food and watched the Cavs. It was a calm and mostly happy day, but a corner of me yearned for surprises and possibilities, the wonder little children bring to holidays.
And tonight, one evening into the New Year, I had a crazy idea that I might set up the crèche and move the Wise Men across the living room a few feet each day until they arrived at the manger on January 6, Twelfth Night. There’s still time, you know?