My friend asked if some of the ornaments on our Christmas tree were from my childhood. “My childhood? God, no!” I said. My family’s efforts at Christmas cheer seemed to diminish over the years until in time there was barely a nod. I remember delicate glass bulbs packed in straw, easily dropped and shattered into shards, and a nativity scene of painted clay figurines, including a manger with a removable baby Jesus, all grouped in a semicircle atop the television set. But the idea of having imported anything from that sad and ancient realm was incongruous to me.
In any case, my lucky little boat had bumped against the bright shore of a now. On top of the tree in our living room today was a luminous white angel from my sister, and dangling among its branches were little mementoes of my daughter growing up: a Clara from the Nutcracker Suite who lost her arm in the early 1990s, a mermaid and a reindeer, tiny bicycles and violins, even a banana and a plastic ear of corn, which, as my daughter’s British boyfriend, Xander, remarked, have astonishingly little relevance to Christmas. There were stars and doves and bulbs hand-painted by a friend, and even a sparkly spider web. No matter how compulsively one approaches the hanging of such ornaments, there is a festive sort of randomness about it, a cheerful miscellany unfettered by theme.
Looking back upon the murky waters of long ago only underscored the goodness of the present, for I was in the midst of my favorite Christmas ever. We walked with friends, not in snow, but on the beach at low tide. Picture a woman with a green umbrella placing starfish back into the sea. Imagine pink shells and white birds, passion fruit and pomegranates, talk of pesto and tango and doing something new. My daughter and Xander returned from town laughing and laden with packages, and there was a windfall of oranges to gather from the ground, and a neighbor gave us raspberry lavender vinegar and sweet dried tomatoes from her garden. It was the season to discover that a small house holds many friends and there should be brandy in a pantry. On Christmas Eve there was a windy beach walk with the tide at its lowest ebb and waves strewn with white manes and rainbows.
Later Xander told us about his family’s English traditions: the reading, in hushed reverence, of ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve, a bit of mince pie and port left out for Santa, and a carrot for the reindeer, the rituals of stockings and presents, the turkey stuffed with sausage, and we mustn’t forget the Brussels sprouts. We played “Greensleeves” and carols and Handel’s Messiah, and listened (in hushed reverence) to a reading of ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas. And the moon on the breast of the hills that we know gave the luster of midday to objects below.
On Christmas we awoke to a table set with toast and coffee, stockings stuffed and lumpy with licorice and chocolates, oranges and bananas, soap and surprises…and through the magic portal of a computer screen we visited Xander’s family in England.
“Thank you for showing us those Brussels sprouts,” said Xander.
“Tomorrow I want to see you in a bathing costume,” said his grandfather, wearing a fez.
Then gifts were opened, given with love, each one perfect, and the best gift of all is to see one’s child happy, and this I have received manifold.