Ghosts of Christmas Past
December 26, 2019 – Elfrida, Arizona
Over the years, many have complained about the commercialization of Christmas. It’s become the new normal to see lights and presents displayed after Hallowe’en but, despite the gripes, most of us buy into it all (no pun intended). But, I believe that none of us have forgotten the true meaning of the holiday season. If we had, we wouldn’t feel waves of nostalgia when we can’t be with the ones we love. With my kids grown and scattered, it’s impossible to stay physically close to all of them—I have to satisfy myself with video chats.
As I look back, Christmas has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for me. It’s the one time of year when people put aside their petty differences, when family and friends come together to celebrate. But, when tragedy strikes, Christmas can be a heartbreaking time for those who have lost, or are separated from the ones they love.
Like most kids, when I was a child, I believed in Santa’s magical ability to fly over rooftops and fulfill my fantasies—what kid doesn’t want to believe that? I believed longer than most, even when my friends tried to convince me otherwise.
On Christmas morning, I would wake long before sunrise, unable to restrain my excitement. My brother and sister weren’t as eager as I was, and it took a few shakes to get them out of bed and down to the living room. Hanging from the mantel were my Dad’s oversized socks, stuffed with fruit, nuts, candy, and a couple of small gifts, teasers to keep us satisfied until we could open the real ones. Once we’d emptied our stockings, we headed for the Christmas tree, where we’d pick up our presents, one by one and shake them. If they didn’t make noise, we’d push them aside—probably another pair of crocheted slippers from our grandma, no toys here.
The smell of my mother’s cooking permeated the house from the night before – odors of mincemeat, yule log, and butter tarts. When my parents woke up, we’d sit down to a breakfast of pork pie, spiced with pepper and filled with jelly, but my mind wasn’t on the food. All I could think about were the presents under the tree, especially the big one that rattled when I shook it. Maybe it was the doll I’d asked Santa for?
Breakfast was over, but the waiting wasn’t. My dad headed up to the bathroom to brush his teeth, though it must have been more than that since he’d been there for an eternity. I knocked gently on the door, not wanting to upset him, “Dad, are you finished yet?” He uttered something incomprehensible—I guess I caught him with a mouthful of water.
Finally he emerged and we headed to the living room. My mom had placed one of the dining room chairs next to the tree—my dad held the place of honor next to the presents. He was the designated gift-giver, and he handed them out slowly, one at a time, waiting for each one to be unwrapped and appreciated before getting the next one.
Long after my parents separated, they would get together for Christmas at my Dad’s house. It was an effort to make things normal again, if only for a day, though to me it felt forced, unnatural, and I wondered when they’d abandon this self-imposed custom. We had our own lives by then, but we tried to be a family once more.
As I married and had my own kids, oversized socks turned into red and white store-bought stockings, but the ritual remained the same—gifts handed out one at a time, no rummaging madly under the tree.
My kids grew up, married, had kids of their own, and my greatest satisfaction came from being around my grandkids and sharing in their excitement. When I couldn’t be near them, I’d be there vicariously on the phone.
Christmas has been the best of times, and it’s been the worst of times. My mom, after her divorce in the 70s, moved back to Canada. She lived in downtown Toronto, on the 22nd floor of a high-rise apartment complex, and I know she was lonely without her family nearby. My brother had moved out west, and she was involved with an older man who had his own family.
In 1974 I’d quit my job as a lab assistant and set off on a backpacking trip through Europe—two months of wandering through England, Spain, Morocco, and Denmark. With my British passport, I could work in England, so I took a temp job in November and found a roommate in London. I’d hoped to save enough money to travel again, but I made barely enough to pay the rent. The holidays came, and I was lonely. Two days before Christmas, in a moment of weakness, I quit my job and flew back to Toronto.
I showed up with my backpack at my mom’s apartment—I hadn’t told her I was coming. She opened the door, stepped back, then a smile crept over her face. As I entered the living room, I noticed there was nothing—no decorations, no Christmas tree. She’d expected one of her kids to join her, but this year there was no one. The tree, once adorned with lights and bulbs, now sat on the porch naked except for a few strands of tinsel, and I knew I’d made the right decision to come back.
There were times when I didn’t. In 2009, the year of Diego’s breakdown, I decided to stay in Italy—spend the holidays with him rather than fly back to the States. Diego had left the house, but I thought he’d be with me for the holidays. I was wrong. He came over on Christmas Eve, opened gifts with my daughter and his daughter, then vanished. I spent Christmas and New Years alone in an empty house, trying to sound cheerful as I called friends and family to wish them merry Christmas.
As I look back through my Christmas photos, I see joy–family, friends, and faces who are no longer here. Somewhere, up above, I know they’re smiling down on us, sharing the excitement of the holiday season.