(In a previous century, Newsday would publish an annual Christmas essay, each penned by a staff member, and somewhere along the way I was invited to participate. Here, slightly updated, is the old yarn….)
“Write about snow,” my daughter said.
That would be a Christmas topic. It also would expose me as an Outsider. I grew up in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, California, New Mexico. My first recollection of snow was in the Dick Tracy strip of the Sunday comics one mid-December, big white flakes wafting down onto Tracy’s stylish yellow fedora. People didn’t wear fedoras in the South and West. Until I went off to college in the Midwest, I don’t recall owning a sweater, either.
Now, frankly, I can get fairly passionate about snow’s rightful place in the whole Christmas mood. Currier & Ives prints. Snowball fights. Ice-skating on the local lake. One year we drove up to Connecticut to chop down our own tree in a postcard snow-covered field, equipping ourselves with boots and hats and scarves and a saw. What we should have brought was one of those surveyor tripods, because if an otherwise perfect tree is growing on a hillside, it will lean alarmingly when snugly nestled into its stand in the den. It will then necessitate small guide wires tied to the sliding-glass door handle and to a nail next to the fireplace, just to hold it upright. But I was unaware of this; not only did we not have snow in west Texas and eastern New Mexico, we also did not have hills.
Anyway, a white Christmas is a symbolically familiar thing only because it has been filtered through a lot of Anglo-Saxon and European wintertime tradition, layering English gift-giving of Boxing Day over the Dutch legend of St. Nicholas and various other Old World customs. There’s no snow in Bethlehem.
“Write about the time you tried to eat Christmas dinner at McDonald’s,” my wife said.
That would get into the traditionally poignant holiday theme of how a singular soul sometimes can become disconnected from the big human family, a most fundamental element of Christmas, the old no-room-at-the-inn experience. I was single, I was roughly 2,000 miles from my nearest sibling, my parents no longer were living, and my roommate had gone home to Pennsylvania for the holidays. I was wandering a bit ghostlike through the noisy Yuletide bustle.
I don’t recall feeling sad about it. I was ticked off and, mostly, hungry because McDonald’s—my very last choice, whatever the occasion—was closed. I don’t remember quite what I did about it, though I doubt seriously that I cooked anything. Maybe a can of soup.
To be in such a situation now, at 69, really would be awful. But when one is 24, gainfully employed, with a football game to watch on TV, what’s the problem with being alone to face a shuttered fast-food emporium? That was roughly the time of life when I was so confident where my next meal was coming from that I didn’t own a credit card and often forgot to carry cash. I wrote checks—some for amounts of 57 cents or $1.23—at the grocery store and must have assumed that emotional nourishment always would be in plentiful supply as well. Probably because it always had been.
When I was growing up, Christmas itself seemed cozy enough and, being snowless, certainly warm enough. Grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins lived too far away for any of those rollickingly festive, chaotic gatherings so often depicted in movies and books. But there were four of us kids, and the posed snapshots of the family each Christmas included the cat and the dog and at least one battery-powered contraption or an electric train, so there was no lack of excitement.
My father, one of the quietest, most peaceful people I ever met, always answered our query of what he wanted for Christmas with, “Just a little peace and quiet.” So we gave him socks or a tie.
“Write about the first Christmas present you remember,” my daughter said. “I remember my tricycle. And my red Christmas robe.”
Now, that’s interesting. I remember I once admired a tiny notebook that my brother had. It had maps of the United States and the world in it, and I always loved maps, an affection for geography that may have had something to do with subconsciously feeling the movement of my father, an oil company executive who was transferred every three years, like clockwork, causing the family repeatedly to fold up our tent and move along. To me, a primary question in life is: How do you get there from here? What roads do you take?
My brother’s notebook, then, was to be coveted, beyond the automatic extra value carried by all of his belongings (based on the fact that he was older), which he sparingly and warily loaned to the Charlie Brown of the family for the very good reason that I forever was breaking his stuff. His model airplanes, his homemade go-carts powered by old lawn mower engines, whatever; they fell apart in my innocent hands. Even years later, I borrowed his motorcycle and was not yet a mile away when the clutch cable broke. I captained his new ride-on mower and had gone 20 or 30 feet when some essential gizmo gave out.
So it was no small thing, that long-ago Christmas, to unwrap an apparently humble package from my brother to find the notebook-with-maps.
I could write about the red necktie and black blazer I got from my parents way back when. Worn with a white shirt, The Look accurately replicated Dick Tracy’s daily garb (indoors, where he courteously would remove the yellow fedora)—a reminder that Christmas gift-giving is an ideal time to humor otherwise ridiculous requests.
I could write about the Christmas-card routine. “Dear Aunt (Somebody): Hope your year has gone well. We are fine and busy here. Well, guess I better go now so this gets in the mail in time for the Christmas rush. Love to all….” I always mean to do a better job of it, but I am hesitant to bore an aunt in Effie, La., or an old family friend in Hobbs, N.M., with the fairly exciting news that my car passed 100,000 miles in October, and it would sound too much like putting on the dog to gush about my business trip to London in June. Plus, there’s a built-in difficulty in picking up a dialogue with someone you last told, “Hope your year has gone well. We are all fine and busy here….”
I could write about the maturation of my own appreciation of Christmas as an occasion, except that may not be giving credit where credit is due. From the time I met my wife, I have been thoroughly marinated in the sounds, smells, tastes and rituals of Christmas. The tree is settled upon only after standing in the cold until toes and fingers are numb. Homemade wreaths go up everywhere. Advent calendars and Christmas placemats materialize. Outdoor lights are painstakingly strung on bushes. Ornaments—we must have at least 200 now—must be placed for maximum visibility on the tree, with the most breakable ones strategically away from the cat’s reach. No two gifts are wrapped alike; creativity and tactics of disguise (such as several boxes of ascending size, each inside the other) are held in high esteem.
But I digress.
Our daughter was born at Christmastime. How’s that for a spectacular gift? We stuck her under the tree in her modern-day swaddling clothes and took her picture, and to look at that photo now—all these years later—gives a sort of Normal Rockwell texture to my life, far removed from the time outside that darkened fast-food joint long ago.
Now that’s something to write about.