Christmas when I was growing up was mostly about presents and parties. Our family had its ritual — stockings on our bed when we woke up, no access to the tree and the presents underneath until breakfast was eaten and every dish washed. We had enormous numbers of presents, it almost makes me ashamed there was such a big pile under the tree. Of course a lot of them were practical: sweaters, socks, mittens. I always loved a new book. But when I got finished opening 12 or 14 presents (could there really have been that many?) I felt a vague disappointment — something essential was missing.
Of course we went to Church, the outward show of religion was very important to my mother. After Church we went to my Grandfather’s house for Christmas dinner. It was a huge house, and a huge party. There were seven siblings and step-siblings and their spouses, and twenty-two grandchildren. Each child had a place marked by a card, and there was a present from GeeGee, our step-grandmother, and a present from whichever adult had drawn our name. Each parent drew as many names as they had children which was a good plan. At first the grandchildren all ate together, and the grown-ups ate in another room. Gradually, in groups of 4 or 5 we got promoted to the grown-up table.
Christmas, for my parents, was a little bit about conforming to cultural norms, a little bit about presents and decorating the house, but mostly it was about drinking. I survived by retreating to a hidden corner and losing myself in a book.
The Christmas I finally found out what it was about, was the first one I did not spend at home. The year after I graduated from college, a classmate and I went to Europe for the year. We started in the British Isles, stayed in London with some special friends of Bettie’s, then picked up a car in Paris that our parents had bought for us. It was a Volkswagen Beetle, and it carried us through many adventures. We spent most of the winter in a penzione in Florence, but went back to London for Christmas. As we left Paris on the train, we found ourselves in a compartment full of young Britishers going home for Christmas. We talked and laughed together, shared stories of our families and our travels. I don’t remember how many we were, six or seven perhaps, but by the time we got to the Channel Ferry we were such friends that we stayed together, crossed the channel together, got the same compartment in the train to London. We sang some carols, shared an orange and a bar of chocolate, and said heartfelt Christmas wishes and goodbyes at Victoria Station.
Bettie and I stayed with Anthony & Nora and their only other guest was a priest. Nora gave us some money to get the priest some handkerchiefs, but in the store we saw a lovely maroon cashmere scarf and bought him that instead. It turned out that Father Philip was a scholarly type who liked good food, and it was clear that he was pleased with the scarf. Bettie and I had brought a leather jewelry box in Florence to give to Nora, and as Anthony had finally saved enough money to buy Nora a diamond ring it was a perfect present. Bettie gave me a Florentine wood carved madonna and child — I still have her and sometimes she appears in the centerpiece at dance. I gave Bettie a marble egg, she was collecting them. Anthony & Nora gave us small sets of books of Great Poets. So few presents, and I remember them all. But what I remember more was good fellowship and love, very clearly there with all of us. That was what had been missing in all my childhood Christmasses. What’s saddest is that the love might have been there, and was hidden by all the stuff.
There’s a story by Barbara Kingsolver (“Lily’s Chickens”) in which she talks about her grandfather. He “used to tell me with a light in his eyes about the boxcar that came through Kentucky on the L&N line when he was only a boy—only once a year, at Christmas—carrying oysters and oranges from the coast. Throughout my own childhood, every year at Christmastime while an endless burden of wants burgeoned around everybody else, my grandfather wanted only two things: a bowl of oyster soup and an orange. The depth of his pleasure in that meal was so tangible, even as a child, that my memory of it fills me with wonder at how deeply fulfillment can blossom from a cultivated ground of restraint.” (from Small Wonder, p118)