It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Nostalgia
Most of us have a vast storehouse of holiday memories, if not about Christmas or the start of a new Gregorian calendar year, then of your own special holidays. We recall all the things that made, and make, the days leading up to whatever Big Day you celebrate, but the traditions, rituals and trappings of the Big Day itself. If you don’t mind, I will use Christmas not only as a placeholder for whatever your special day is, but for what it has meant to me. Feel free to substitute as you see fit.
My Christmas Day seemed to have begun around midnight Christmas Eve. Mom and I would go to Midnight Mass at the cathedral in my home town. After Mass, we would come home and Dad would have an early breakfast ready: scrambled eggs, sausage, and some years, biscuits. Without fail, the same menu, and that is why I can remember it.
After this first feast on Christmas Day, we would open presents. I remember being about seven or eight years old, and after unwrapping everything in sight, Dad sent me into the kitchen to get a trash can. The lights were off, but i knew exactly where it was and navigated back to the living room, can in hand. Dad said no, I had to go back and see if there were a bigger one; he somehow believed there was. It was the first time I thought he was crazy. When I went back, turned on the light, I saw a shiny new Schwinn bicycle. My heart lept or joy.
Were the rest of Christmas Day as joyous. Remember, this is a six to maybe ten year old speaking.
We went to bed, woke up mid-morning, got dressed and began a pilgrimage as reliable, tried and true as breakfast. First stop my aunt (Mom’s older sister) and my grandmother. I grew to love visiting my grandmother and listen to stories of her youth (she grew up dirt poor in South Louisiana, spoke a Cajun patois and broken English, but had a heart of gold). When you are six, and your grandmother is feeble, she is much more of an old woman than a treasure. I played with my cousin, counting the minutes until we packed ourselves into our car for the next stops.
Stop two was my aunt, my dad’s sister-in-law. His brother was killed in France in WWII, and she remarried but our families stayed close. The two older cousins from that family were a son and daughter from my uncle before he died, and the two younger step cousins, I guess. We played a bit. Never in my dreams did I guess Jerrianne, the older girl, and I would bond in life long friendship. How I miss her; she died of cancer not long ago. Ironically, she did research in how foods could help prevent cancer. Isn’t that a cruel blow to memories?
Stops three, four and five were the homes of people my dad worked with. The first two were childless couples whose homes attracted gobs of couples for eggnog, divinity and fudge, and salted nuts, washed down with bourbon drinks if I remember correctly. They did not attract couples with kids, so I staggered about, sipping bourbon-spiked eggnog and fruit cake, wondering what else I could do. Until we went to stop five, a family with twin boys my age. I don’t think we got on too well, but didn’t squabble, so time passed amicably. What i do recall so vividly is the lights on their tree. They were miniature candle-like things, varied in color, filled with a colored liquid that bubbled while they glowed. I thought them mystical, exotic and wondeorus. We never owned any of them as far as I can recall. But every year I asked for them.
As the afternoon drew to a close, we trekked back home. It seemed that Christmas evaporated and dried up like the needles on the tree. Until Dad decided to get a silver artificial tree one year. Including a light with a wheel of four colored gels that rotated to provide a perpetual spectrum of artificial hues. Bah, humbug.
Then Came My Kids
And things got different. There was shopping to do. Sometimes fun, sometimes a competition like bumper cars running on nitro fuel. Sometimes really crappy toys and things to put together from 10PM until 2AM (when I was the only one still up and wishing I could read Japanese to decipher the instructions). But always fun and exciting. Before that appointed assembly hour, though, there were the rituals: write a note to Santa, put out some milk and cookies and a reindeer treat, read (with exuberance) ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas; I can still almost get through the whole thing from memory, just like The Cat in the Hat. I will probably breathe my last recalling lines from both.
Then Christmas morning. Squeals, laughter, and sometimes tears of joy. Oh yes, the kids loved it too.
But food definitely became a big part of the entire season. Thanksgiving ushered in the cooking frenzy, and it exited sometime in the first week of January. Always seemed like the Thanksgiving table drew a big crowd, an open house with the same table laden with the fruits of days worth of cooking, and then a true Christmas feast. We had ham, we had turkey, we had a goose, a standing rib roast, and we had turducken. I got into chocolate making and turned out hundreds of candies and shared them with neighbors and friends. Nothing went to waste, but a lot went to my waist.
Each year, I wrote a letter to my kids and wife, trying to fit on one page how much they meant to me, how proud I was at all they had done in the year ending and the years preceding. It was the first thing they went for in their stockings. Actually hung by the chimney with care. I would burst with joy seeing smiles and tears come to their faces.
A Lot Has Changed
My older kids have all grown up, and my daughter has her own son now, just over six months old. It will be wonderous indeed to see the traditions he will grow up with. While my youngest is still at home and a great teen, the dynamics are not the same. He doesn’t mind, and neither do I, really, except that I really do. I miss all of that. I am a sentimentalist and an old softie, I guess.
But all of this brings me to another point entirely.
I have a dear friend who is a pastor at an evangelical church nearby. I have done things for the him and the church over the years because they are all wonderful people and as my small way of thanking them for their love and friendship. He has wanted me to join them as an effective member of the congregation, but it is not for me. I tried to explain it to him in the following way. It starts with memories of Midnight Mass in that childhood cathedral.
I remember it being so grand, large and majestic. I guess, like my elementary school that seemed so large when I attended, it would be greatly diminished if I were to revisit it today. Especially compared to the truly grand cathedrals I have seen in France and Italy and elsewhere. But my minds eye sees acreage of white marble, Gothic arched ceilings and my ears hear the grand organ and world class choir singing the Mass in Latin and carols for the exiting processional. I attended Mass there every Sunday when I was growing up. I could recite most of the Mass in Latin, and I was the first to stand, kneel or sit as was proper during various parts of the Mass. I carried my Daily Missal much like Moses carried the tablets down from the mount.
When I had to explain my views on faith to my friend, though, I realized what I remembered and cared about was all of that lovely ritual. The Gregorian chants, the smell of incense burning, the ringing of the bells as the celebrant changed bread and wine into spiritual body and blood. It wasn’t faith, nor belief, it was nostalgia.
Is that a good or a bad thing? Truthfully, I don’t know. Faith is not a cornerstone of my life, and I know of friends and acquaintances who will not be just mortified and aghast at my proclamation but fearful for my mortal soul and likely to keep small children locked safely away lest I demonize them. But my personal lack of religious faith comes with great respect for those who have it, short, let’s say, of their condemnation of me. Hey, I get that my religious upbringing brought marvelous feelings and emotional warmth and satisfaction, and for many, that not only doesn’t diminish but grows and becomes essential as the years go by.
Maybe it is nostalgia in another form. Or maybe the spirit of Christmas. We may never know.
But thanks for the memories.