It’s Christmas time and I know how lucky I am to have a loving and wonderful husband, two beautiful, smart and creative daughters, my mom, sister and nephews a day’s drive away, my in-laws in Maui whose beautiful home we’ll be visiting for Christmas this year – all wonderfully lucky circumstances… and I am very sad.
This weighted down feeling plagues me every Christmas – a deep sense of loss and grief as I remember the Christmases in our family home before I divorced my daughters’ father. The fresh pine boughs I used to weave through the wrought iron stair rails, the fire that popped and crackled every night in the carved sandstone fireplace, the collection of snow globes I would cluster on the Queen Anne table behind the striped brocade Chippendale couch. In the center I always placed the favorite globe; the enormous one that you had to nestle upside down in your lap in order to wind it up, it was so heavy. Around the base of that globe, a little train bearing gifts traveled in a slow circle through deep green pine trees, while inside, a cozy and serene family gathered by the fire in their Victorian parlor, the windows and mantels decorated with pine boughs and burgundy bows, the tree draped with red bead garlands.
Every year I bought a new advent calendar for the girls to open; and I lined up all the advent calendars from years past in a row along the base of the tall leaded glass windows that extended from deep low sills all the way up to nearly the ceiling. So many nights my daughters would step onto the windowsills and stand silently watching the snow sift down outside, while behind them the fire was warm and bright and a fat Christmas tree scented the room; it twinkled with lights, red wooden bead garlands, and a hodge podge of shiny ornaments – “Baby’s first christmas” crystal bears; art deco painted-glass carrots, pears, apples, grapes, and oranges; teardrops and spheres covered in satin ribbons and crusted with pinned beads, made by my grandmother years ago and, more recently, by my younger daughter who loved making ornate creations of her own.
We made traditional Christmas cookies; spritz, the butter cookies squished out of a cookie press; sugar cookies rolled out thin and cut into trees, reindeer, and Santas; snowballs filled with chopped pecans and rolled in powdered sugar that melted in your mouth. My tradition for friends and neighbors was homemade caramels; I cooked them in a deep cauldron on the stove, poured them into a 9 x 13 pan, and cooled them overnight before turning the caramel slab out the next day onto a big board and cutting it into squares that we all wrapped in red, silver,and gold foils.
In each of the windows downstairs, I placed a single candle with a clear bulb for the flame. In our bedrooms upstairs, I placed candelabras holding three candles each, topped with translucent bulbs in deep red, blue, and green. They flicked on and off all night in random sequences, and when the house was quiet at night and you lay in bed in the the dark, you could hear the faint “ping… ping” of the bulbs as they flashed on, then faded out, then on again.
We played traditional Christmas music from the same LP record collection every year; Elizabethan carols, the Winchester Cathedral boys’ choir, a folk Christmas music album, Handel’s Messiah, a collection of traditional carols performed a cappella.
I realize in retrospect how somber our style of celebrating Christmas was, but for us, it was magical – a soft transport of our spirits to an earlier time, a deep, deep cleansing breath in the heart of winter, a mesmerized soaking up of richly colored shiny objects, fragrant fresh pine, dark and heavy brandy-soaked fruitcake, transcendent music, warmth.
One day when my older daughter was about ten, we were talking about how differently we celebrated Christmas than so many of her friends’ families. Wistfully, my daughter said, “I love the way we do Christmas, Mom. I love Christmas.” Then after a moment, she added, “And it’s the only day of the year when I know Dad won’t get mad.” Which may give you a hint of the enormous chaos and suffering that was going on in that family home all of the other days of the year. Which is why, eventually, the family home was broken, and was no more.
When I moved out of that house on a snowy January day in 2002, I tried to split the Christmas decorations evenly, but for my half I did selfishly take the big heavy favorite globe. It grieved me and comforted me at the same time; that perfectly warm family sitting together with their cat and dog in their little living room decorated just like ours…
The following Christmas, as I unpacked the decorations with a heavy heart, hoping somehow to create a holiday home at least reminiscent of the magical Christmases of years now gone, I opened the box of globes and began pulling them out to place on the rustic wooden table that sat behind my hastily purchased nondescript couch. One after another they went up, until I got to the bottom. And then I pulled back the packing and found tragedy; the big,beautiful globe lay shattered, shards of glass spread among the bottom packing that was stained with the liquid that had spilled last winter and then dried out over the spring and summer and fall that followed.
I considered trying to salvage it somehow; maybe have all of the glass removed and use the base and figures as a sort of sculpture. But the base would never look right where the globe had sat. And the family would not be cozily encased in their little magical and timeless bubble anymore.
No, this family too was broken, and it was no use trying to patch its home together. Deeply painful as it was, it was better to let it go and move on to a future without it.