A friend from a city tells me that he is sick of Christmas (the secular event, he means). The zillionth Santa Claus has done him in. He has heard his favorite carols boomed on P.A. systems too many times; he has seen thousands too many hideous lighting displays, been shrilly alerted to too many pre-Christmas sales. His responses are dulled by excess; he looks upon the gathering festivities with a jaded eye. Christmas is for children, for them alone he says, because only such innocents can respond with wonder and delight to torrents of flash and glitter and sentimentality. Hence that twaddle about everyone being a child at Christmas. Would that it were so, he sadly concludes, would that it were so.
He says, I am lucky to be living on a remote farm, hardly exposed to the juggernaut of Christmas, and of course, that's true: I suffer no such bombardment as he. But even when I lived out in the world, so to speak, I was not bothered by Christmas as my friend is, because I paid little heed to the kind of things that annoy him, and in this I am surely not unique. I'll bet that most people are similarly selectively inattentive. Christmas takes place in my mind as certain childhood memories, and again, I would not be surprised to learn that this is quite common. The attraction does not seem to me to be nostalgia, but rather some special elusive quality that I have sought for years to understand.
For some reason, although I remember many Christmases, my ritual of inner celebration confines itself to just four memories from the late 1930s when I was about five years old.
It is mid-afternoon of Christmas Eve, the time when we always set up and decorate the tree. It stands in one corner of the living room, and the various relatives and members of the family are hanging decorations, putting up lights, throwing tinsel at the tree, putting holly and evergreen branches on the mantelpiece. In the foreground stands my father, home early from the office, and he is talking with Earl, our postman. In those days, there were two daily deliveries in residential areas, and my father has invited Earl in for a Christmas drink. Finally, naively concerned about the other people on his route, I go up to Earl and tug at his sleeve; shouldn't he go and deliver the letters? Everyone laughs. My own intervention in the scene never seems important to me now; it is the background -- the tree, the decorations, the bright colors, the exhilarated family -- that holds my attention.
The next scene is close up, from the side, of my mother sitting at our upright piano, singing and playing Christmas carols. The rest of the family stands around the piano, singing, but the only one I see distinctly is Mother. I watch her sing; I hear the piano.
The scene fades, and now I see Grandpa, my mother's father who travels by train from Wisconsin to New Jersey every Christmas, sitting in a high-backed chair by our fireplace, the only source of light in the room. Father and Mother are in the background, the other children sit around Grandpa's chair or on the hearth. I, as the youngest, am privileged to sit on his lap. A tall, spare man wearing always a dark, three-piece suit and a hearing aid, Grandpa tells us the same stories every Christmas in a wonderful, deep country voice crossed between Wisconsin and Vermont.
Once when he was a small boy he went to a far pasture to fetch the cows, but they had wandered on the hillside and he was a long time gathering them and starting the herd for home. It was coming dark, and Grandpa heard the cry of a wildcat behind him in the woods. The animal followed him all the way down the hillside to the home fields. This memory, like all my scenes with Grandpa, is a double vision, because each story begot in my mind a scene retained to this day. The cows, rather slight and long-legged like deer, are picking their way down a brushy slope, lit fadingly by the sunset's after-glow; a little boy, carrying a long switch, walks beside them; he determindely does not look back, but behind him in the dark wood a tawny animal prowls from tree to tree.
Out after dark once on some errand, hurrying along the road, anxious to be home, Grandpa was passing a graveyard when he noticed, out of the corner of his eye, a ghostly light on a grave. It seemed to jump from gravestone to gravestone following the boy's progress. When he reversed his steps, so did the light. Grandpa was released from a growing panic when he realized, looking over his shoulder, that it was only the reflection of the moon on the stones.
When Grandpa went to the Chicago Exposition in 1893 he stayed, for the first time, in a hotel, and in the middle of the night he was awakened by an apparition of a man, covered with blood, beckoning him. After a moment, the apparition disappeared. This happened three times, but Grandpa convinced himself that he was dreaming and finally went back to sleep. When he looked at a newspaper next day, there was the picture of the man who had tried to summon Grandpa to his aid: he had been murdered the night before. This is an old story, of course (it's in Chaucer), but no less mysterious for all that, and so it seemed to me as I sat on Grandpa's lap, watching the firelight flicker on his spectacles.
In fairy tales, and sometimes in dreams, there are enchanted places: the child opens the half hidden door in the vine-covered wall and steps into a secret garden, a place that seems out of time, outside the bounds of ordinary life, magical both in its strangeness and in the intensity of its sensuous reality. But after the child leaves, he can never find the door again -- the enchanted place is given to him only once.
Christmas morning, 1938. We have a houseful of relatives, so my brother, 10 years older than I, and two friends of his from boarding school, Pete and Bill DeBawn, are sleeping in the attic. Clutching my stocking filled with tangerines, apples, and nuts, I climb out of bed in the pre-dawn darkness to make my way to the attic door. Like most attics, it is a dark, dusty storage space with hiding places behind chimneys and in nooks in the corners of steeply sloping roofs, but it was also used, not long before, by my older sisters and brother as a playroom. A swing is suspended from the rafters, and there is a long cloth mural of fairies and toadstools, very tattered and faded, pinned to one wall. Pete and Bill are sleeping in the old iron bedstead, pushed against the front wall under the dormer windows. My brother has a cot nearby. Everyone is awake, everyone has a stocking, everyone is excited, whispering. It has snowed! By standing on the bed, I can look out the window and down into the street. It is still snowing, and the snow, large, fluffy flakes, has piled thick rounded domes on the tops of hedges and posts, rounding all outlines with a thick, soft white blanket. In the circle of light cast by the street lamp on the corner, I see that a single car has passed; its tracks are slowly filling with snow. I gaze and gaze at the circle of light, at the flakes falling steadily past the lamp. As I write these words, unexpectedly my eyes fill with tears, and I know now what I have sought -- the door in the vine-covered wall that I thought was lost: Nothing is so intense as the memory of it. *