Contemplating the Christmas ahead of us, I recently commented to my daughter-in-law, “Christmas should be the same every year. It shouldn’t change.” I sounded like a grumpy five-year-old. “Really?” she asked. “You never expected it to change over the years?” “No,” I said. We both knew it wasn’t true, but in some odd way, I meant it. I wondered for a while why I would so boldly assert something so silly—until I began trying to write this letter. The answer is that this Christmas will be drastically different from all the others in my life—the first since my mother died.
The Christmases of my treasured memories are set in the living room of the home in which I grew up, and all of those Christmases were the same. Dad put up the tree in the same corner every year, arranged the lights on it just so, and then, his work done, made way for the second wave—Mum and the four kids, the crew that decorated the tree with the same ornaments every year as A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas aired in the background. Every year, I made a point of being the one to hang the manger in precisely the right spot on a branch near a light bulb. It was an ornament the size of a matchbox, a fragile representation of a stable made of cardboard of some kind, with glitter snow on the roof and a Cellophane Christ Child lying inside, and I made sure that I placed it right there—not too high or too low but where it was likely to be the first thing you’d see on approaching the tree. The same spot, every year.
But of course the Christmases of my life haven’t all been the same. The church where I served as an altar boy at Midnight Mass isn’t the same church to which my wife and I took our three children for the Children’s Mass every Christmas Eve and it’s not the same church I went to last Christmas Eve. Once there were seven of us at Christmas dinner (six plus Mum’s stepmother). For many years, my godparents and three cousins joined us and we numbered 12. More recently, we’ve crowded as many as 25 or more of us into the living room of my childhood and later into Mum’s apartment. I dreaded the first Christmas after Dad died, but as we all gathered and did all the things we’ve done so often over so many years, it felt like Christmases past, as if, at any given moment, Dad was simply in the other room, the one you weren’t in just then. Christmas is Christmas.
This year, we won’t be gathering at Mum and Dad’s, or at Mum’s, but we will be together. It will be Christmas, and as aunts and uncles and cousins laugh and throw snowballs of wadded wrapping paper at one another (it’s a tradition), it will be as if Mum and Dad are with us—they’ve simply stepped into the other room. And this year, for the first time, the little manger that hung on Mum’s tree last year will hang on mine, not too high or too low but in just that spot near a light. Just the same as it has done every other year. Just the same, but different.
Wherever you celebrate it this year and however you spend it, may your Christmas be blessed and the holiday season a happy one.