I grew up in a loud, frenetic home. In addition to my parents, there were seven of us kids, born oldest-to-youngest in just a 10-year span. (I’ll pause to let that sink in.)
Imagine Christmas in that house. When we were little, the place pulsed with nervous energy. I can remember scrambling around the tree together, counting and sorting and speculating over what made one gift rattle or gave another its unique shape. Who knows what kinds of calculations took place in my parents’ quiet hours together (did they even have quiet hours together?) as they tried to ensure that no child felt overlooked or under-loved.
By Christmas Eve, the wave of excitement crashed upon the family shore, sending its exuberant spray in all directions. As I recall, the yule feast was typically a rib roast with Yorkshire pudding and . . . I have no idea what else. Afterward, we would gather for an abbreviated Christmas program of some kind. There again memory fails, but for sure we sang some, with Santa songs woven indiscriminately among the sacred hymns and carols of Jesus—it was all Christmas to us kids.
Eventually we hung our matching stockings and scurried off to bed. From that point, the living room was technically off limits, but you can bet that by 4 a.m. anticipation would overwhelm sleep, and one or more of us would begin slinking up and down the hallway, flashlighting our way through the fresh booty that had appeared while we were “asleep.” (One year my younger brother Michael woke me with a beam of light to the face. “You got a bike!” he announced. My corneas have not recovered.) Once we had assembled a critical mass, our clumsy eagerness would betray us and we would be shooed back to bed by a disheveled parent. But rather than return to bed, we would huddle in one of the bedrooms, chatting anxiously while we awaited the celebratory signal: my father shaking a string of bells and exclaiming, “Santa came! Santa came!”
All these years later, my memory clings to a smattering of snapshots from specific Christmases, but the details of those gleeful hours have mostly faded. Faded, that is, with one prominent exception: Every Christmas Eve, as the after-dinner festivities drew to a close, we would gather for a reading of the familiar King James account of the First Christmas Ever. My father would drag out the family Bible—one of those gigantic tomes meant mostly for display—and share with us the account of the birth of Jesus as recorded by Matthew and Luke. My siblings and I were never what one would consider especially (or even somewhat) reverent, but in my memory we sat quietly for this. He was not an especially religious man, my dad, so when he read scripture, it was a very special thing.
Hearing my father recite that familiar account remains for me the most sacred thing imaginable. It had a greater effect on me than any of the baubles stuffed into stockings or concealed beneath the tree. Among my sundry childhood memories, it remains among the most precious, perhaps because of how it made me feel. Memories of the Spirit are that much harder to forget.
Oh, but how time passes relentlessly on. As we grew, whichever of the brood was near enough at hand would reunite each year in my parents’ home, now with our own children creating the energy of anticipation and wonder. As marriages added in-laws to the mix, new traditions mingled with the old; but the most treasured tradition remained inviolable: We would sit, and my father would recount the tale of angels and shepherds and a miraculous, life-changing, world-saving baby boy. Until he no longer could. The year his eyes failed and my dad asked me to take his place with the family Bible, I felt both disappointed and unworthy. I did the best I could, but clearly it wasn’t the same. Nor is it. My dad has been dead now for over ten years, and still I miss him all the time—never more than on Christmas Eve.
In a couple of weeks, a smaller group will gather in my own home. It will be just Dana and I, Seth and (maybe) Bryn, plus a couple of dear friends. There will be no Yorkshire pudding (who knows how to make Yorkshire pudding?), but it will be lovely nonetheless. We’ll be missing the magic that small children lend to such an event, but when we read of the Nativity, we will still feel the spiritual warmth that story always brings. Come morning, my grown children will sleep until I can stand it no longer. Eventually, I’ll reach for a string of bells and make the big announcement: “Santa came! Santa came!”