I’ve always loved Christmastime. As kids, we spent hours below the tree, investigating boxes, weighing them, guessing at their fantastic contents. Occasionally, this led to disappointments (the year our imagined canoe turned out to be a set of children’s encyclopedias, for example) but our parents spent a great deal of time and effort choosing gifts, and Christmas Day was always joyous in my memory. The day itself was always long and hot, with the promise of testing out new beach inflatables the next day or the day after.
The tree was tinsel, or plastic. Mum made gorgeous, sequined decorations, which went underappreciated by us kids. I feel hot with shame remembering that I once asked why we couldn’t just have a regular tree, with store-bought stuff and tinsel, like everyone else. When I was eight or nine, Father Christmas left me a doll’s house, and I still have a clear memory of making it out in the dark, of straining to see if it was something real or if I might be dreaming it, of feeling it’s smooth wooden contours with my hands and it’s shadowy contents within. The house itself was a simple pine structure, but my Mum had furnished the house, sewing curtains and cushions and clothes for its little wooden inhabitants. I learned only recently that it hadn’t come with electric lights: my Dad installed the little lights in all the rooms, and made light shades out of paper cupcake cases.
It took time to adjust to Christmas in the wintertime. Slowly though, I came to love the period between Hallowe’en and the New Year, the waning days punctuated by Thanksgiving and Christmas. It made sense in an intellectual way, just as shrimp cocktails and sunburn made a deep-seated, visceral sense. I fantasised about hanging stockings off an iron bedstead and my sweetheart and I filling the other’s stocking with tokens of love. But I was never quite in the right circumstances to completely embrace this new kind of Christmas. I made a Christmas pudding once or twice. One year, I had a tree in New York that, despite its modest size, completely dominated the apartment and joined its brethren out on the sidewalk a little before it’s time. I married a man completely uninterested in Christmas, gift-giving, or family traditions. Without children or religion, I never felt I’d found a way to acknowledge the season or to relive that sense of delicious anticipation and wonder.
Until last year. I was sure we’d missed our chance to get a tree when we drove back to Cape Cod from New York and passed by the plant nurseries, all closed for the season. Instead, we found a fantastic tree at a Provincetown hardware store, free for the taking. I made gingerbread ornaments and borrowed Isaac’s aunt’s wonderful box of tousled treasures. We bought lights, and filled two refrigerators. We cooked for days. When I wasn’t cooking, I was knitting, or wrapping, or watching Ellen DeGeneres’ daytime talk show (while knitting). It snowed some, and the steely sky merged with the bay on the horizon. On Christmas Eve, my parents arrived, with my sister, her boyfriend, my brother, his wife and their three-month old baby.
On Christmas Day, Isaac cooked two geese, in two ovens separated by a hill. He spent the afternoon walking back and forth between the two with a baster. The baby was passed back and forth, Isaac’s cousin sang at the piano and my mother received three cardigan sets. We ate, and wondered if it might snow.
The blizzard began during the night. By morning, snow was piled deep against the house, and it was still snowing. Walking down to the beach, coats and boots over pyjamas, my sister-in-law and I sank thigh-deep into snowdrifts, lost our footing, and marveled. The snow-muffled quiet was the deepest hush I’ve ever known. Walking back, the prints and marks we’d made on the way down were already obliterated.
It was two days before our road was plowed. There were concerns about making a flight to Mexico, about the baby’s upset stomach, and, uncomprehendingly, the tsunami. But those two storybook days made Christmas as real again as cold crayfish, the grit of sand in sunscreen or the live broadcast of the Boxing Day Test.