Despite everything, I wanted Christmas. Christmas does something to me – it always has and I hope it always will – it lifts me up. Even when I feel hopeless maybe even especially when I feel hopeless. The Catholic in me wants to tell you that it is the coming light of Christ, and while for me that is true, when I was nine years old, I couldn’t have articulated that. Back then I just felt that as long as there was a Christmas, I would be okay somehow.
In 1976, I didn’t just want Christmas; I needed it. My family needed it. No one felt like celebrating anything. We’d barely gotten through Thanksgiving without my father.
He did most of the decorating. He used his scrap wood to make toys for less fortunate children. He cracked the best jokes at the parties. He invited people over who had no family around. He told us kids the story of The Nativity – complete with talking animals. Whether Dad believed it or not (and I don’t think he did), he was our Spirit of Christmas.
And now, he was a ghost.
My mother did not want to put up a tree. I don’t remember who convinced her to let us have the artificial tree, in its usual place in the living room, but that was our last Christmas tree. There were no lights in the windows, and no wreath on the front door.
The worst part of the house was the now-silent cellar. The shop where my father would have normally been busy putting the final touches on wooden trains, airplanes, dolls and doll houses was empty. All of the work tables were gone, and all of the tools. The shelves where jelly jars of nails, screws and little hinges were stored, all gone. The barrels of scrap wood were gone.
I would sit in the dust and cry, not just because my father wasn’t there; it was like he’d never been there, like all of my Christmases had never been. I did not think we would ever really have a Christmas again.
I called Grandma. I’d seen her at Thanksgiving (my uncle drove her over), but I was not spending weekends there anymore (My mother couldn’t drive anymore because of a stroke she’d had a couple of years before, and we no longer had a car.). I couldn’t see my grandmother, but I talked to her on the phone all of the time. I told her I was afraid that Christmas wasn’t going to happen for us anymore.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “No matter what goes on in this world, Christmas comes.”
And it did. Christmas morning, there were presents under the tree, and our stockings were full. All of my brothers were there (even The Wolfman – that was the first Christmas he had spent with us since he divorced our parents). Mom was cooking a turkey dinner, and smiling (I think the early morning phone call from her Cousin Steve, who was spending the holidays in Hungary that year, had something to do with that.).
My uncle and aunt brought Grandma over, and she brought Porhanos (pronounced POUR-hahn-yosh, and flip that R, please), which is one of my favourite treats. It is a walnut coffee cake with lekvar (prune butter) filling, topped with chopped walnuts and cut into diamond-shaped servings. (Man! My mouth is watering as I write this! It has been too long since I had some Porhanos.)
Later, after turkey, we all sat in the living room with the Porhanos and coffee. I was on the loveseat with Grandma, my head on her shoulder. She gave my forehead a loud smack-kiss.
“You see?” she said. “No matter what happens in this world, Christmas always comes.”
And it does.