It’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. The hap-hap-happiest time of the year. When families gather together from far flung cities or right down the block. Pink-cheeked from the cold, hands covered in mittens, necks wrapped up warm in scarves. Arms piled high with presents and snowmen in the yard. Wreaths on the door and sleigh rides galore. Houses decked out with twinkling lights and decorated trees. Fa-la-la-la-la.
Christmas has never been like this for me. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there were years when I desperately wanted it to.
When I was eight, we lived in a little mining town in Nevada that isn’t there anymore (Victoria, right on the Nevada-Utah border). It was the year my sister and I went to school in a one-room schoolhouse, like pioneers who’d come out west a hundred years ago. Owing to the town’s impermanence, all the miners and engineers lived in trailers spotted along the hill.
In November, just like all the other previous Novembers, the big, fat Sears catalog arrived. It smelled of fresh ink, weighed at least five pounds, and measured at least three inches thick. Ripping off the brown paper protective cover, I skipped past the clothes, the curtains, the bed sheets, the shovels, the power tools, the coats until I found what I was looking for: the toys.
Train sets, dolls, games, stuffed animals, Legos, bikes, Viewfinders, Easy Bake Ovens – on and on the pages went. What to pick? How to select? It was hard not to become immobilized by the tyranny of choice.
I studied those pages and finally wrote my letter to Santa. I really wanted a film projector, I explained to him. A train set, I put second. Then I mailed that letter and waited.
For weeks, I was very wound up from expectations. And sugar. What would he bring? More important, though, was the curious fact that our trailer had no fireplace. Without a chimney, how could he get in? Would he skip us?
That Christmas Eve, I couldn’t sleep. I vacillated between worrying that he wouldn’t come and being over the moon excited that there’d be a film projector under the tree. The films I’d watch! I could do screenings. I could watch scenes in reverse, then fast forward them, then in reverse – again and again.
I lay awake most of the night, listening for the smallest of sounds, my ears tuned to every Christmas frequency. I swear I heard reindeer hooves on the roof and woke my sister next to me to come see.
“No,” she said sleepily, then opened one eye and looked at me, I think with sympathy. “Okay then,” and took my hand as we walked down the short hallway to the living room. Empty.
“He hasn’t come yet,” she said. “Go to bed.”
In the morning, the tree had come alive with presents. What had been empty was now full of wrapped gifts. But no film projector.
Every December 25th was a breakdown of disappointment. A child’s tears blended together with “But I didn’t really want this” and “You mean this is it?” and “What do you mean I have to wait 364 days until it comes again?”
I have no great love of Christmas. There hasn’t been a Christmas since that one in Victoria that was filled with so much excitement and magic. It’s not that I’ve lost my child’s heart and grown old and cynical.
It’s just that this time of year – and what it means to me – has changed.
When I was a kid, I wanted toys. I wanted things. And I always wanted money because I always needed it.
But now, I don’t have those kinds of wants or needs. Which is a wonderful, magical, and lucky place to be. A blessing.
Last week, Paul and I saw a woman, a waif standing by the side of the road. She was gray, shapeless and ageless from being skin and bones. In her hand was a cardboard sign, “Anything helps.”
I found a five dollar bill.
“God bless,” she said, taking it. “Thank you.”
And that’s what the season means to me now. It’s not film projectors or Sears catalogs or long lists of wants. It’s not even snow, sleigh rides, or the crackle of a fireplace.
The magic of the season is having the love of my life with me everywhere we go. It’s spending time with my small, wee family in a cookie-free apartment with an apartment-sized tree. And it’s being able to give someone something they need – or want. Because in the end, for all of us, anything can help. And when we give it, it puts a little magic in the air that can last all year long.