It was an East Coast Christmas day, but the weather was mild–too mild. The sun was shining, the air smelled like spring, and my sister Marlene and I ventured outdoors wearing only sweaters for warmth. It didn’t seem at all like Christmas. We yearned for the snap of snow under foot and tiny puffs of frosty air meeting our breath. I suppose we’d have liked sleigh bells, too, and a pond for skating, and coming back flushed and happy to a mother who served hot chocolate.

What we wanted, truth be told, was joy within our troubled house, and a sense of celebration. But holidays in our family never went well. There would usually be a fight or tears or some mighty attempt at festivity that would inevitably go awry and leave us bewildered in its wake. Marlene used to say we lived in the chalk garden, where nothing could grow.

On this balmy Christmas afternoon, we went into the backyard together and sat behind the garage. We brought along a treasured transistor radio and tried hard to feel the spirit of the season. With such sunny, spring-like weather and not a decoration in sight, the only evidence of the holiday was the music that our little radio offered, but every station we tuned into was playing some version of the Twelve Days of Christmas, which struck us as utterly hilarious. We giggled, turned the dial, and giggled some more.

Over and over, it was the same song, and one of the silliest, a song of extravagantly senseless acquisition, although I doubt that would have occurred to us. Perhaps there was a sense of absurdity and cynicism in our laughter anyway, but I don’t think so––neither of us knew a thing about absurdity or cynicism, and we had no inclination to reject the fantasies that our culture fed us. We were unequivocally drawn to the sparkle of those fantasies; it’s just that they always seemed beyond our reach.

So we turned the radio dial, cracking up at every mention of partridges in pear trees, forgetting about the house of strife in back of us, and laughing…that blissful kind of pee-your-pants, almost-in-tears laughter, the kind that leaves you weak, the giddy abandon familiar to kids, much rarer in grown-ups. We huddled together and stayed outside for a very long time. And nothing happened. Only that.

Nearly 50 holidays have come and gone since that long ago Christmas day. I think of Marlene and miss her every day, and I understand a lot of things, too late…although maybe that’s better than never grasping them at all. I can see now that in our shared merriment behind the garage, my sister and I were encircled by light, safe and separate from the house of sadness. Our laughter was the magic we craved. Our love was all the Christmas we needed. Nobody saw us, but we were shining like angels.


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