Christmas Ghosts

I have always loved Christmas. As a child, there was the wonder of bringing a tree inside the house, adorning it with baubles, and watching them glitter in the tree lights. There were nighttime celebrations that took me outside where the lights glittered across the snow. The world itself seemed to twinkle.

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I still like Christmas as an adult, but for different reasons. As with most traditions seen through adult eyes, the twinkling and magic is a bit dulled. And the magic is complicated too. If I were religious, I suppose I’d see the joy of salvation in the holiday, but instead I see that—for me at least—Christmas is something of a yearly memorial to your own life. A kind of celebration of your family and the subtle changes in course it takes from year to year.

The Christmas trees we decorate every year, for example, are like little memorials to Christmases past, years past, people past:

I have an ornament made from the paw print of my family’s beloved beagle after he died. I see it hanging on the tree and think of the funny Snoopy-like sound he would make when he’d yawn on the sofa and kick out his back legs in his characteristic unwavering commitment to his personal comfort.

I also have a little snow-covered fairy tale house ornament that belonged to my parents. It was my favorite as a kid, and I think it was part of a whole Christmas set that someone gave my parents when we lived in Russia. There were woodland creatures and houses and snow drifts. Everything was dusted with glitter. I remember my mom pulling these out of storage and staring at them as a child, wide-eyed. So when I see this little house on my tree today, I see myself at three or four, watching my beautiful mother bring Christmas magic into our home.

And there are more recent memories, too. The soft zebra ornament that I got for my son’s first Christmas, which reminds me of the stroller walks we’d take around the Fairmount neighborhood in Philadelphia, where I bought the ornament. There’s the blue-hued crab ornament my son selected for himself last year, in honor of his fascination with the crabs we always see washed up onto the beaches around the sound. And now we have a little soft raccoon, my daughter’s first ornament.

But more poignant than concrete things like the baubles on the tree are the fleeting moments. I can’t hear the Nutcracker anymore without fighting back tears. As we’d busy ourselves with various Christmas preparations in years past, Tchaikovsky’s lovely music playing in the background, my mother would invariably sing along or sometimes even whip out her best pas de chat. She is there in the music. Hiding in plain sight. My giggling baby son is there too. And my handsome husband, the week before we got married on New Year’s Day. And I can even conjure up a vision of my teeny daughter next Christmas. Or on the Christmas after that.

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And so as I busy myself with Christmas preparations, I’m surrounded by the ghosts of Christmases past and future. The magic of Christmas, for me, is no longer in the twinkling lights or the mystery of Santa. Instead, it’s in the memories that flood back, vivid and sparkly, as I pull out the memorials that are disguised as Christmas traditions.

We humans mark the passage of time in the most curious ways, don’t we?

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