The ghosts of Christmas Past

Nothing could be better than a childhood Christmas morning. — Brooke Raymond./Flickr

Nothing could be better than a childhood Christmas morning. — Brooke Raymond./Flickr

Return with me now to the days of yesteryear when you were small and the world was new.

In the mind of a child, could there be anything quite so fine, so shining and magical, as Christmas morning? Surely you remember how the anticipation gave your stomach a little squeeze as you came awake with a single thought: Did Santa come?

Maybe you’d spent the long hours of Christmas Eve, the most sleepless night in childhood, listening for the telltale clop of reindeer hooves on the roof. A falling pine cone, a wind-whipped branch, was enough to make you believe the Big Guy was making his appointed rounds — in spite of your small crimes and misdemeanors.

No doubt you were confined to your room, with or without siblings to share whispered conferences on Santa’s likely arrival time. My brother Ted and I had the upper-floor bedrooms, where we huddled in the soft glow of our own “Little Tree,” the one with bubble lights, and told ourselves we wouldn’t sleep a wink until we definitely heard his sleigh.

My brother had a crystal radio set with an antenna clipped to the old steam radiator and a battered, kid-sized headset. We’d scan the channels, sometimes picking up stations amazing distances away, wondering if the announcers speaking in foreign tongues were discussing Santa’s travels. They might have been, it was possible — didn’t Santa himself come from that far-away place, the North Pole? Wouldn’t anyone who knew anything want to spread the word?

In my house, it was clear this night that magic was afoot. In the run-up weeks, we’d helped my dad outline the house in colored lights and my mom make endless batches of cookies. We’d stenciled the windows with Glass Wax snowflakes, laid out the crèche and hung a wreath on the door.

But of the tree there was no sign. No presents were in evidence at all. Not one. Santa brought all of that on Christmas Eve as if, with a wave of his hand, Christmas arrived in a piece, only then sprung into reality. (From adulthood, I wonder how in the world my exhausted parents managed.)

Before bed, we’d written Santa our last fond wishes and set his cookies and milk out on a plate. Hungry work, all that gift-giving. The snack was always gone, more proof that he’d really, really been there.

Most of my less fortunate friends had to wait for daybreak before charging down to the living room. In my house, the big moment was upon us when we were finally called to dress for midnight Mass, which we did with fingers made clumsy by heart-stopping expectation.

Down the hall, down the stairs, shoes in hand we crept, and when finally we threw open the door, there before us was a tree as high as the ceiling, dripping in tinsel, ringed ’round with mountainous piles of presents. It was a vision, a mirage, a child’s dream-come-true. Just thinking of that moment, I can feel how my mouth fell into a little round “O,” and my sleep-dazzled eyes widened to take in the tree with its fairy-light glow.

That glimpse of the wonders to come kept us awake through the long church service, and sped us home through the cold, dark streets. Back home, the air was redolent with the heady fragrance of balsam and the yeasty scent of my father’s homemade bread, the essence of Christmas.

And then, finally, we gathered at the tree in the earliest hours of a new Christmas morning. There could be no greater glee than sitting down at last to that pile of rainbow-colored packages waiting to be torn open, each one a mystery, about to be revealed. Each one, potentially, a young heart’s desire.

Ah, but it’s so easy, really, to please a child. A doll, a book, a game, a silly windup toy, can make the day complete. In adulthood, the things we really want are so much more complex and elusive. Reconciliation, hope, health, security, peace among men and women of good will — these are hard to wrap in a package tied with a bow. Would that we could.

In our maturity, we think more of giving than getting, and conspiring to put a light in someone’s eye is half or more our joy. Right there — in that impulse — Christmas lives. Open your hearts, open your arms and embrace this day. What we know, in our maturity, is that the best things in life aren’t things.

Merry Christmas, dear friends, may it sparkle and shine.