Coming home from school the last day before Winter break pops loud like a bottle cork getting pried off. Christmas season: shrouded mystery, open book. Consistently warm, regardless actual weather. Better than wet-weather baking, better than snow days, better than any day in November, in February, than even July. There was nothing that wasn’t possible. Smiles said “I’m right here, right now. And I expect joy”. How often is joy expected? Joy in bursting: bursting off that last bus; bursting through the door; bursting up and down aisles in stores. Bursting so much so the night before, that only eyes grew tired waiting for that moment of bursting from bed. (*Now getting out of bed involves verbs like “pry” or “brace”, and unfortunately not “burst” or “joy”.)
Piping chimney, piping hot fire, hot stove. Cold toe, hot breath. Sweating through wool. Lonely outdoor aromas inhaled deeply, ravenously, with animal lungs. Deep inhales that said “Hold on. Don’t rush. Let’s let this last for more than just one slice of forever”. Huffing visible breath in the air, thinking “Wow, look at us, we are air making machines and we can see life”.
The promise of Christmas wonder was guaranteed: no school meant sleep late, meet with friends. Take treks in the woods, wear yourself out. It meant people held doors for one another and on those doors were wreaths which smelled of laundry. Elves’ laundry, done in the woods. All around, people were harried in a good way--they hustled, like in the last lap of a race or better yet last quarter of a tied game because that means “fight for the team” and that is also part of the Spirit: Unity.
Unpacking boxes of Christmas ornaments and adorning the tree was a rite of passage. My seven siblings and I had filled boxes with glue-ronments, assorted kindling of felt and ice-pop sticks, glitter and pinecones, and starring Elmer’s glue by sight and smell…inhaled through the years. Bought breakables, the up-high ones sleeping in paper wombs, opening each like a secretly passed note or possibly prized Wonka bar. After fifty weeks of slumber in an attic tomb, they rose to life like marching soldiers upon seeing light, a yearly birth.
Things were thick. The weight of Winter was heavy yet not burdensome. Held up on frozen ground, nests of carolers huddled, offering their hearts. No constriction was felt in full rooms of family. Chock full of stuff. Dense with love. Loaded with the smell of bacon, of roast turkey and other delicious decaying flesh. Heavy linens with deep hues and heavy plates--the weight of finer things.
This time reflected one thing I liked about church: the ceremony. Here: extra care, extra tableware. There: extra people, extra Jesuses, extra Marys. Marking her calendar month: Mary, the original Mz. December. Extra altar adornments and Poinsettias abounded. People spoke in low tones, counted steps.
Within rites of passage, roles reverse: kids bow to their parents’ sugarplum visions. Think Santa. A neighbor (who I knew was smarmy even at seven) came over, Santa for hire, offering his lap, the usual line of questioning, and accoutrements like beard, Hohohoho--and I, knowing it was him yet playing along, prayed “This face must look more smile, less wince, no?” We all force stories of necessity eventually.
I wonder when the official fact of Santa’s non-existence stood up, Dean of Childhood’s Death?
It’s kind of like figuring the last time you did something, especially if it was A Thing. Every day after-dinner walks with Dad; Sunday: chicken day; Wednesday, Parcheesi tournament: Boys v. Girls; Thursdays with Aunt Edna (’91-’94). You never remember the last because you usually don’t know it’s The Last. And who among us recalls calling cut?
As years went by, the excitement of the Holiday waned: like an engagement ring offered after ten years of courtship-the smile of the bride not quite beaming, an “I do, not DO!!”. A submission. What happened to the wonder of Winter? For me: I got cold. Knew new kinds of heaviness: why person x and person y didn’t talk and why. That everyone had either x, y, or z in their family tree and that sometimes sorry wasn’t enough to call truce.
Now my wonder is in how it was all pulled off? What kind of veneer was used, what potion allowed adults to carry out the backstage handiwork which to me was just a play? Those theatrics. How did they get Peter to fly like that? It seemed it must include a lot of forgetting. Intentional forgetting. I can picture a priest reciting “Let us rise. In Peace. And let us all forget.” Amen.