The ghosts of Christmas Past are haunting me this year. I am happily surrounded by memories so vivid and so real that it hardly seems possible they could be returning from decades ago. Such is the wonder of the human mind! What Proustian cookie crumb nudged my sensate faculties to revive with such accuracy these visitors from my past?
I’m visited by the night we walked through our Miami neighborhood, dressed in shorts, admiring the lights displayed on houses and trees flanked by privacy fences created by 6-foot tall, live poinsettia plants. The year the company car broke down while we were visiting relatives out in West Hampton on Long Island, stranding us there until the New Year. The snowstorm we drove through on the Pennsylvania Turnpike while traveling home for a family Christmas. The snow was so heavy on the highway that vehicles were moving slowly enough for car-weary travelers to get out and walk along beside. There was the Christmas when the flu gave me a dangerously close brush with my own mortality. The first Christmas without one of my children at home. The Christmas I spent visiting a friend in jail. A spectacular Christmas with my daughter in France, when we first heard the Toccata from Widor’s 5th Organ Symphony performed after the Christmas Eve midnight mass at the Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Lyon. The last Christmas I shared with someone I loved before he was soon after murdered. The lavish, childhood Christmas when my mother made dozens of stuffed animals to surprise and delight her four children. The Christmas my toddler joined forces with her cousin and painted my sister-in-law’s white boots with red lipstick. The first Christmas my grandmother baked a birthday cake for Jesus, and we all sang Happy Birthday to Him. Each of my children’s first Christmases. I remember Christmases at each of the jobs I have worked at over the years – how we celebrated with co-workers. There were so many magical moments. And then all those happy Christmases that I took my kids to see “The Nutcracker,” all those years of hearing “Messiah” performed under different conductors, different soloists, and especially the year a symphony conductor and I wrote each other wonderful letters in response to one of those performances. The cantatas and school performances I sang in and the ones I heard my children perform in. The annual ritual of hearing my dad’s voice give pure delight to the reading of the Nativity story from the Gospel of Saint Luke. And, how eagerly four children waited until all the prayers had been said, all of the preliminary remarks made, before we could finally satisfy our overwhelming curiosity about the enticingly wrapped packages beneath the Christmas tree.
And, oh, the trees! Going on the yearly hunt for a tree – first, in the forests of Northwest Arkansas, then in the tree lots of St. Louis, year after year, hunting for the best tree/the best deal. The ornaments, the bells, the balls, stabbing my finger with the large needle while threading popcorn strings. The glue and the glitter, the tinsel, the angel hair, big lights, tiny lights, colored lights, clear lights, steady, blinking, broken, burned-out, tangled, getting them all up on the tree. One grandmother’s ceramic Christmas tree, the other grandmother’s white, music box angel. All of my Christmas music boxes playing at once. The candles,the colors the carolers, the hugs, the smiles, the smells, the Christmas cookies and baking, baking, baking until just recently when gluten and sugar have become four-letter words.
I greet these happy spectres with open arms! They are my children this year, they are me, and I love them with all the strength of my heart, so much so that I have brought them to life and they dance before my eyes as real as today is real. I open each memory like the Christmas present it is: hidden in its own shiny paper and brightly-colored ribbon until I unwrap it and turn it over in my mind and relive every precious moment of it. Because each moment is precious, is only here for the blink of an eye, and that is why I love these Christmas memories the way I do. They put me in the moment, once again, and help me to remember not to miss even what might seem to be the most insignificant moments as they speed by into the past. Grab them, love them, know them well – so that they may be recalled and relived and loved and enjoyed over and over again.