For me, Christmas isn’t just a day. It’s a month-long holiday, during which I feel like an awe-struck child. I savor every sign that the season is here – special treats lining the shelves of my local Italian deli, colorful lights that transform nighttime into a sparkling wonderland, carolers, the smell of pine and freshly cut trees strapped to the roofs of cars. Each day after Thanksgiving, my daughter and I “keep Christmas,” as Dickens says, in our own way, from little things like a glass of eggnog to larger things like our annual pilgrimage to Rockefeller Center and the surrounding city. The very first time I hear “White Christmas” (not just any version, mind you, it has to be Bing Crosby’s) I smile, knowing the season has truly arrived. It’s never been about the presents, you see. It’s always been about the undeniable mood that Christmas brings, one of hope, charity, sentimentality and a return to innocence. A grown woman with a child of my own, I’ve spent lots of Christmases this way, so the fact that I wasn’t “feeling it” this year wasn’t just disappointing… It was downright disturbing.
After a long year of hardship, tragedy and loss, I have to say we didn’t have the luxury of making Christmas last an entire month this year. In fact, my schedule didn’t allow me to even think about the holiday until it was just a week away. Determined to salvage the experience, we squeezed every tradition we could into that week, not out of obligation but, instead, out of a genuine desire for the wonderful feeling that came so easily every year before. Despite the effort, Christmas remained elusive. I imagined that this was because of the last minute rush, the sense of lost time, our complete exhaustion, but I also worried that the hardships we faced this year might have left me permanently jaded, that I might never feel that childlike innocence again. The harder I chased it, the more Christmas seemed to be out of reach.
So, on Christmas Eve, I simply stopped chasing it. I gave up. But that’s also when Christmas found me. After baking Christmas cookies and wrapping a few presents, my daughter and I headed off to church for evening mass. What we found that night, I’ll never forget. There, sitting in the pew in front of us, was a mother and her three daughters. The youngest, who couldn’t have been more than five years-old, was the picture of happiness in a little red dress. And all she wanted was to sing. She didn’t know all of the words to the many Christmas songs being sung that night, but she didn’t really care either. She sang at the top of her lungs, pausing or humming softly when she didn’t know what to sing. Sometimes she contributed a word, other times an entire phrase. It didn’t bother her that she was missing out on large parts of the song… she jumped in where she could, with a passion and volume that put the choir to shame. She sang with innocence and a sense of abandon that made every person in that church beam from the inside out. We were amused and humbled by this little dumpling of a girl, who was so filled with holiday spirit that she wanted to take part in the beauty of it, and share her joy with everyone else. That spirit, completely contagious, left the church with me that night. Standing at the door, my daughter and I gasped at the realization that it had started snowing during the service. Linking arms and giggling like children ourselves, we turned our smiling faces, filled with wonder, up toward the falling snow and made our way home.