As I drive home in December’s dusk, Christmas lights wink behind the bare bones of the trees from houses I never noticed. Atop a hill, a house sits, iced with white lights; another, perfectly reflected in Ice Pond, twinkles like a castle in the gloom. The tiny Christmas tree that floats in the middle of Chase Creek appears to be lit by elves.
One of my favorite things about the holidays is bright lights in unexpected places, silently illuminating the winter chill, celebrating the season.
As a child growing up in a family of nine kids, Christmas was all movement and noise and barely controlled chaos. We made 20 different kinds of Christmas cookies — our teachers loved us. Fortunately, with six girls, there were many willing, and some unwilling bakers. The process began at the beginning of December: cut-outs, striped candy cane cookies, Mexican wedding cakes, gingerbread people and “buckeyes” — a concoction of peanut butter and sugar, rolled into balls and topped with chocolate, sort of a modified Reese’s cup, that weighed about a pound each and settled in your stomach like a soft bomb.
The recipes called for large amounts of butter, sugar and white flour — my mother bought 25- pound bags that lived in the cellar for the rest of the year — and sprinkles. Lots of sprinkles. Fights would break out over the ones that were so covered in red and green sugar you could barely see the cookie underneath. “Gross,” an older kid would tell a younger one, “No one’s going to eat that.” The younger would cover it protectively with an arm that rested on a couple of already frosted cookies, breaking them. “I will. I like them this way.”
To this day, I don’t bake Christmas cookies. I blame it on total immersion as a child.
Christmas morning found us dressed in matching red and white flannel pajamas — until my teenage sisters rebelled. Waiting at the top of the stairs, breathing our sour morning breath in each other’s faces, while my sleepy parents turned on the tree lights, put carols on the record player and no doubt said a little prayer. Then, running full-speed down the stairs, each kid for himself, only to be blinded by the hot flash bar on my father’s huge movie camera as we raced towards the Christmas tree.
Who got the big present that year? The one too large to wrap and covered in a plastic Christmas tablecloth, a different kid’s name written in Santa’s hand, as messy as my father’s. Always a challenge to figure out whose present it was. The year I was eight and a budding Betty Crocker, the big present was mine: a full-size metal play refrigerator for my pretend kitchen and a Liddle Kiddle doll tucked inside. That tiny doll still sits on my dresser, wearing her 60’s hot pink playsuit with matching hat, and worth a small fortune on ebay.
Nostalgia erases the petty arguments, the commotion of Christmas, but as those snowy Christmases greyed into evening, I remember our sweetness with each other, the sadness that the much-anticipated day was almost over for another year.
Now that I’m a mother, I marvel at the superhuman energy my mother had to re-enact all the traditions year after year; she must’ve collapsed into bed every night, worn to a nub.
Much as I miss my big family during the holidays, I don’t miss driving to Buffalo. I can’t face the blizzard-like conditions driving through the Poconos and Binghamton, the inevitable postponement of the return trip because the Thruway closed, the area socked with ten or twelve inches of snow the afternoon before we’re set to leave. When I call my parents on Christmas Eve, I hear the shouts of the grandchildren playing “Spoons” and arguing over pizza.
Now we celebrate Christmas with our family of three on a much smaller scale. Quieter, less chaotic, no one shoves or cries or has a temper tantrum. Something is lost and yet not. We’ve created our own traditions and as my son grows older, the traditions change. Gone are the Playmobil Advent calendar, the Legos and the “Frosty the Snowman” DVD. Now my teenage son plays Christmas carols on his electric guitar and pores through music equipment catalogs, choosing wah pedals and tube amps. But he still loves to decorate and our small house brims with lights and decorations.
I worry that he is missing out on something my husband and I both had growing up. But I don’t think so. He seems content to have us together, none of us working, to watch “It’s A Wonderful Life” and Ralphie in “A Christmas Story,” to have a big dinner on Christmas Day with baked brie, sparkling cider and a spiral-cut ham. And give us the handmade presents he’s worked on in secret and to unwrap a few presents of his own, hopefully with a couple of surprises.
If Christmas Day is sunny, we’ll head over the Wades Beach in the afternoon, before the too-early winter darkness settles in. We’ll often see friends, walking their dogs. Stillness settles at the beach, as if the earth is celebrating its own winter solstice, but quietly.
We’ll return to the darkening house, lit only by Christmas lights, to have our feast.
For this day, the outside world disappears. We reach for each other, knowing we are blessed.