The Ghost of Christmases Past
by Julia Buckley
I’m sure everyone feels nostalgic at Christmastime; after all, it’s a festive holiday, but it’s also a way to mark the passing of the years. So I remember bits and pieces of many Christmases past—Christmases spent with my boys when they were little and yearning for gifts with innocent desire. A Christmas spent with my first child, just two days old. The Christmas my husband proposed to me. Christmases spent with my parents and siblings, sitting in a circle in our living room and reading A Christmas Carol aloud to each other before Midnight Mass.
A few distinct memories jumped into my head as I contemplated writing this little essay, so it is those memories, those tenuous windows into the past, that I will share now, as a way, I hope, of making your holidays more merry.
Once, when I was tiny and it was Christmas Eve, we went out somewhere and, as usual, my parents dressed my sister and me in pajamas at whatever place we visited (probably my grandmother’s house) because we usually fell asleep in the car on the way home. When we arrived, though, I woke up, and as my father carried me toward the house I expressed disappointment that there were no signs of Santa. “No sign?” he asked me. “Look up there!” He spotted the red light of an airplane in the sky and pointed at it. “Do you think—well I’ll be—I think that’s Rudolph!” Yes, my father said that, and yes, I believed him. I was so excited I almost couldn’t fall back asleep. Later I heard the distant jingling of bells outside and felt that special combination of joy and terror that is a child’s anticipation of Santa Claus. It warms my heart now to think of my father going out in the dark with one of my mother’s bell-covered decorations and shaking it under his daughters’ window.
In another Christmas season, when all five of us children still lived at home (or perhaps my oldest brother was home for college), my parents were gone somewhere, and the Christmas decorations had not yet been put up. My brother suggested that we children should put them up as a surprise—an idea we all liked. So we got the boxes out of the attic and started decorating in the way that tradition dictated: Santa statue here, nativity scene there, German elves on the bookshelves. My brother and oldest sister had the window lights laid on the floor, deeply involved in the untangling. These were the big ol’ industrial Christmas lights that you saw everywhere in the 1970s (and again now, as nostalgic touches). In order to make the job easier, we plugged the lights in so that we could see which needed replacing and where they might still be tangled. It was a lovely scene—siblings working together, not fighting, sharing the joy of holiday anticipation.
Then my brother lifted the strand of lights and we saw, horrified, what we had done. The hot lights had melted our carpet. Black, waxy spots burned into the green fuzz showed the pattern of where the lights had been. We all looked at each other with the recognizable “We’re in trouble” faces. How could we possibly explain this?
As it turned out, my parents weren’t angry. My parents, to their credit, were rarely angry. My mother must have been broken-hearted when she looked at her living room, but she and my father commended us for doing such a good decorating job and for taking the initiative. I’m sure they felt relieved we hadn’t burned the house down.
Carpeting is expensive, and we didn’t replace the damaged one right away. So several seasons passed during which we saw the black imprints of Christmas lights as we walked back and forth in our busy living room.
Oh, and a last beautiful memory: my mother’s Christmas table. My mother slaved over Christmas for weeks beforehand, making and freezing cookies and cakes so that everything would be ready for her three-day spread. There were spritz cookies and homemade fudge (my nemesis, which I could not stop eating and which gave me a stomach ache); there were German cakes like Bienenstich and Dobos Torte (which is also Hungarian). There was chocolate marzipan sent from relatives in Paderborn. And oh, there were cookies: Russian tea cakes and sugar cut-outs, pinwheels and angel-wings, chocolate snowballs and strawberry kiflis. There was wassail and eggnog. My mother wore a beautiful apron, hand-embroidered, that was never covered in food. We would sit around her table full of treats, eating and singing. There was always singing in our house: in German, in English, in Hungarian. Christmas happens in every language, and joy knows every tongue.
I hope you have a wonderful holiday, wrapped in your own happy Christmas memories!