When I was very young – about 5, I think – and I still believed in magic and sugarplums (what exactly are sugarplums?), Christmas was almost painful in its promised delights. As I said, I still believed in magic and knew that Santa Claus truly did see you when you were sleeping, and kept tabs on you being awake, prompting him to put an ‘X’ on the deficit side of your personal roster if he detected wakefulness. Why Santa should have cared if you were awake or not was beyond me even then. But knowing well it was a bad thing in his esteem, I would scrunch my eyes tightly closed when I went to bed, hoping I could fool the Jolly Old Elf. A Jolly Old Elf who had a bit of a mean and vindictive streak about him, kind of like the Old Testament God.
We lived at my grandparents’ house when I was 5, and my bedroom was in the far back of the upstairs and my stocking, rather than being hung by the fireplace, was hung at the foot of my bed. I expect the reason for that was because the aged farmhouse had nothing resembling central heating, so the living room, in which the fireplace was to be found, would be excruciatingly cold in the morning. The fireplace would be lighted later in the morning, so by Christmas afternoon the room would finally be moderately warm.
In the night I lay there, feigning sleep for part of the night at least. But, I must have drifted off because I recall awakening at some point when it was still dark. There was a rustling in the room and I could see the silhouette of a figure in the gloom. The figure was rummaging around in my stocking. I immediately shut my eyes. It was Santa! It had to have been Santa! I hoped against hope he hadn’t espied my open eyes. I thought perhaps I was off the hook because the figure continued with the task at hand. At that point, despite my excitement, I must have actually gone back to sleep, for when I next opened my eyes there was a shaft of light coming through the panes of the tiny window. It was morning. I could look in my stocking to see what largesse lay therein.
I don’t remember what I got, but since I remember that Christmas so well, it must have been perfect. It must have been all that I wanted. It must have been the best Christmas ever. Or – is that just part of the mythology – for I know it is mythology – of that idealized Christmas. I think many of us have an idealized Christmas and maybe that is something that keeps us moderately sane and still permits a bit of the magic to remain in the air. Magic that suggests that Christmas Eve is unlike any other night of the year.
In my idealized Christmas, there is always snow. I don’t believe for a moment that there was snow in every Christmas of my childhood, but in my mind there was. Deep snow. Snow covering all the trees and shrubs and being tramped through the back door and into Grannie’s kitchen. Snow and chill that sent people to pull up chairs next to the big old wood burning range with the warming oven on top. On Christmas there were always loaves rising in the warming oven, and their rich, yeasty fragrance would permeate the kitchen.
In the living room there sat the big brick fireplace, and also the tree. It was a huge tree; a gargantuan conifer that was festooned with baubles and lights and tinsel. I don’t know how huge it actually was, but from my vantage point at age 5, most things were huge, and the tree truly was mammoth, and surely extending right to the 10-foot ceiling of the old house.
Turkey was in the oven, and its fragrance competed with the bread aroma (the loaves of which were by now baked, and were resting on cooling racks). Friends and relatives began to arrive. Legions of friends and relatives (pictured), it seemed, and most of them long since gone from this sphere. There were aunts and uncles, and great aunts and great uncles, and mainly there were cousins. Cousins with whom one would sit at the ‘little’ table, the kids’ table when the meal finally appeared. In my myth it was always a fine meal. Port and sherry were served to the adults (my grandparents were ‘very’ English), and ginger ale to the children. Sometimes even ginger beer, which I didn’t like so much because I found it too strong. After dinner there was plum pudding and custard sauce. I took the custard sauce. To this day I have never developed a hankering for plum pudding.
After the meal was all squared away, everybody retired to the living room for gift exchanging. More presents! It was like a repeat of the morning. How blissful could one day possibly get? After the presents were done, the cousins played with them throughout the house while the grownups nattered in the living room. Eventually cousins, and myself, sauntered into the living room. Somebody was at the piano and those who felt like doing so sang desultory Christmas carols. Cousins and I, tuckered from the festivities of the day, slowly crumpled into torpor next to parents on couches, or curled up in a corner somewhere. The time eventually came for cars to be fired up in the long driveway. Cars needed to be warmed up in those days, or they would stall in the cold air. Cousins were carried out to the awaiting vehicles once the heaters had kicked in. Goodbyes were exchanged, and that was the end of it.
It was the end of it for that year. I as yet had no idea what a harsh handmaiden time was to be and how that Christmas had come to an end, and in certain respects my magical Christmases had come to an end, and for each ensuing year they would diminish just a little bit, just like the numbers of first the great uncles and great aunts, and then the grandparents, and then the uncles and aunts.
But, even today there remains a vestige of the magic. A low-key, relatively non-mystical magic, but magic enough to take me back to a wondrous earlier time that only exists in my false memories.
And, what are most memories, but false? That’s part of their blessing.