A couple of weeks ago I hurt my neck or my shoulder — “the C6 region,” according to the chiropractor whom I started seeing out of desperation yet now am quite attached to — and it’s been hard to get into the anticipatory rituals that make a holiday interesting and attractive. When I was a child, my mother would bake cookies for gifts, and this would start weeks in advance. The house always smelled like almonds and butter and oven heat. It was fun to try to guess where she hid the cookies, and a treat to be allotted a few.
I have done no baking, no Christmas cooking.
Tonight for our Christmas Eve dinner we had pizza rolls, noodle soup, and squash soup, plus glasses of milk. Deck the halls. I had said to Jimmy, when we went out earlier at 5pm for a last-minute errand, “I wonder what the Hales are doing tonight?” Those are my cousins, with whom I grew up, and, for perhaps the first 36 or 37 years of my life, we spent every Christmas Eve together. Whether we gathered at our cousins’ house across the street or at ours, the basic meal was always the same: deviled eggs with a bit of paprika, Swedish meatballs, scalloped potatoes, pickled herring for the old aunts, ham, Uncle Bob’s baked beans, green salad, and in the early days a gelatin salad. Some years a daring cook would experiment and bring a new vegetable dish; sometimes there was lasagna. There was always plenty; my mother and her cousin Joyce believed there had to be a lot, “because men like to eat.” While they were right, I noticed that the women liked to eat, too.
Shoot. I meant to make deviled eggs tonight, at least those. Something from our old life, before my parents moved away from the neighborhood.
As young children, my sister Sally and I had trouble falling asleep on Christmas Eve. We would lie on our backs in our twin beds, and we would wriggle in excitement and kick our legs in the air.
I believed in Santa Clause until I was 12. I wasn’t sheltered; by then, I had heard about menstruation and reproduction and accepted them as fact. I believed in Santa because I wanted to.
One year I prayed to both Santa and God that there would be snow on Christmas. There wasn’t. Maybe that was the year we got our bicycles, and the absence of snow was fitting.
This year there is snow on Christmas, but it’s mushy by now. Today was warm and wet, and the piles along the road are dirty, but the clumps on the branches are still pretty.
My children no longer believe in Santa, but they’re still looking forward to the morning and gifts under the tree. Eli has extracted a promise from us all to stay in bed until 7am. Lydia and Grace aren’t sure they can make it. It’s possible they’ll be crawling into bed with us to finish out the last hour. So be it. Children have a way of generating their own excitement. Or, perhaps it’s in the air.
One day this week I drove to Harvard Square to finish shopping. I turned the dial away from the pop station that Lydia loves and landed on a station playing all Christmas music. (Bing Crosby — didn’t my grandmother Ellen love his voice?) Maybe what helped make the Christmas season so suspenseful when I was a child was preparation for the annual holiday concert at school, the weeks of practice. In the car, I felt sad about not being a part of something bigger than me. “O Come All Ye Faithful” came on. Without actually deciding to sing, I found myself singing; I remembered all the Latin verses, too.
A writing teacher in college told our class that we should be aware of those times when we’re sad, but, out of the blue, start to whistle. It’s a sign, she said, that we feel many contrary ways at once. Not all sadness, not all pleasure — human.