Wednesday, December 24, 2003

The ghost of Christmas past

For many years now I have been chasing the specter of what Christmas used to mean to me. I have tried to recapture the child-like excitement and grandeur of Christmas. Just as many things that you recall from childhood do not seem so big once you see them in the light of adulthood, so has Christmas diminished for me.

This does not mean that I have lost my Christmas spirit or that I don’t recall the true meaning of Christmas. It just means that the phantom I have been seeking now seems nothing more than a wisp.

Let me take you back into my memory and show you what Christmas used to be. Come on… it’s just up here to the left.

My family always had an artificial Christmas tree. Some yuletide purists would call this a travesty but when a real Christmas tree has the potential to kill your older sister because of her allergies, you adjust. Because of this, the tradition around my house was never picking out a tree but picking it out of the attic. Along with the tree came the many boxes of ornaments, garlands, lights, wreaths and other holiday accoutrements. For as much as I hated going up into the attic, I was always eager to scramble up to retrieve the decorations while my father and brother waited for me to slide the boxes down the ladder.

For some reason, my father – and I have somehow been cursed to continue this tradition – had a knack for choosing the most difficult tree to assemble. As the tree was dumped out of the box, the boughs would have to be separated. Each level and, thus, length of branch was distinguished by colored paint at the tip of the bough to be inserted into the center pole. The only problem with this was the manufacturer would use odd colors. Rather than bright green, red, blue, fuchsia and other easily distinguished colors, the nutcase assigned this task would use dark brown, black and navy combined with dark red and burnt orange: Masochists.

At any rate, most of a weekend would be spent decorating the tree and the house to brighten up to the season. Soon after, we could look forward to the arrival of Christmas cards and bags we weren’t allowed to look in. As the weeks went by, the pretty boxes would start appearing under the tree. By Christmas Eve, they would be spilling over on all sides… my parents were good to us at Christmas.

Tradition dictated that on Christmas Eve we were allowed to open one gift of our choosing with the occasional exception of a gift related to another gift or, “No, you can’t open the big one tonight.” With excitement building to a fever pitch, secure in the knowledge that more presents would miraculously show up overnight, and knowing that several of my wishes for shiny new toys would be fulfilled, I would lay awake most of Christmas Eve – unable to sleep; restless with anticipation.

As the seconds ticked off and we came closer and closer to the dawn I would hope and hope and hope to hear another person stirring while the first rays of sunlight peeked through my window. I was long ago banned from waking the house at dawn on Christmas morning. I had to wait until at least one other person got up – on their own – before waking my other sibling and, finally, my parents.

Once everyone was roused from their slumber and mom and dad had a chance to work through their most basic morning routine, we were allowed to proceed downstairs to the family room to open presents… Yeah… Right… All three of us would gather at the top of the stairs like Labradors salivating for their treats and wait for mom and dad to emerge from their room. Once the door opened and they said, “Okay,” we would fly down the stairs into the living room and immediately start sorting through gifts.

“This one’s mine!”
“Oh WOW! I got a big one!!”
“Ooh! Here’s one for you, Mary!”

We would sort because it was poor etiquette to start ripping them open before mom and dad made it downstairs and had settled in. Not that I even knew what etiquette meant – I just knew it was a no-no.

The wrapping paper flew, boxes were opened, expressions of glee were uttered, and the gifts were stacked in five little piles as the contents of packages were disclosed. As we finished and said our thank-yous mom and dad would adjourn to the kitchen to make a hearty breakfast often consisting of eggs, bacon and/or sausage, and pancakes.

Once breakfast was started, the three of us would work to extract gifts from boxes and perform simple assembly – like putting the pistol into G.I. Joe’s kung-fu grip. We would sit in the living room and play, occasionally leaving to check on breakfast or to report revelations of, “Mom! Look what this can do!”

Once breakfast was over, the toys would rest among the shards of wrapping paper and empty boxes as we went upstairs to get ready for church. Often, we would wear that new shirt or sweater to show off at services… as did almost everyone else.

Most of the time, my family would sit near the front of the church – never the front row, though – but Christmas was different. Our church had what we called the mitten/sock tree. This was a live Christmas tree on which parishioners would hang… mittens and socks… that would be donated to local charities. Since it was a live tree, we had to sit near the back to avoid as much sinus congestion on the part of my sister as possible.

I was never overly fond of church services. This is a fact that will not surprise my father but will also not make him happy. For some reason, I just didn’t get into it. Christmas, however, was different. The pageantry and the fellowship as well as the opportunity to show off new clothes are memories I wouldn’t trade for anything.

After church, we would change into new non-dress clothes and go back to playing with our new toys. Then, somewhere in the midst of the afterglow of pretty paper, pancakes, and prayer, the Vermont and New York contingents would check in. My grandparents and aunts and uncles would call. After mom and dad had a nice talk with them, us three kids would each take a turn. Some calls would last over an hour as the phone was passed from person to person in each household.

Back then, Christmas was a full day of celebration. Now, it seems more like six weeks of stress searching for and wrapping gifts, finalizing travel plans, and trying to keep our own house in order followed by fifteen minutes of mayhem as wrapping paper is forcefully separated from what it covered. After that, children disappear to play video games and adults settle in to watch television.

Maybe it’s just a case of holiday blues. Maybe it’s adulthood. Maybe it's that I'm turning cynical. Maybe it’s a lack of religion. I only hope that, someday, I will be able to recapture the magic of Christmas past.

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