Through the overlapping blur of memory, particular moments that captured something new or unique maintain their clarity. One such moment, for me, came as I straightened the handlebar of my bicycle after the penultimate turn of six to get to my friend Cliff’s house on Christmas morning.
It was a gray day. Cold, but not painful. The streets were empty, but the unusual feeling of the moment was its ordinariness. Christmas had never felt that way, before.
This was the first year my parents and I hadn’t gone to stay with family for the holiday. Our longstanding tradition had been to visit my maternal grandparents in Vermont, where there was more often snow and where, more importantly, there would be four cousins — two also visiting and two a few blocks away. But my grandparents had begun wintering in Florida, so we tried one year at my paternal aunt’s house in Connecticut and then one at my paternal grandparents’ home not far from ours in New Jersey (two cousins in attendance, in both cases).
The change in tradition brought a slip in happy illusion, too. The morning we were to leave for my aunt’s, I’d found an enticing bag of toys by the door, and my mother was conspicuously interested in which gifts I’d spotted. The Christmas Eve at my Jersey grandparents’ house — an open ranch layout, contrasting with the two-story colonial in Vermont — I’d watched through the cracked-open door of the spare bedroom as the adults arranged presents around the tree.
Until the year that I spent the day mostly at Cliff’s house, Christmas was about going somewhere else, somewhere different, somewhere with other children in the family. During my childhood without religion, it was also a day that nodded toward belief. And then, suddenly, it was just a day.
One wouldn’t be far from the truth characterizing the blur of memory following that new experience — years in which particular moments tended to crystallize not through their uniqueness, but out of something more like painful sharpness — as being always winter but never Christmas. They were years, in a sense, in which there was never anywhere to go, although I looked.
And I finally found. These days, Christmas still doesn’t feel but so different from the rest of the year, but that’s more attributable to the eternal spring of every week. The four children wake up under my roof every day (too often waking me up, too), and faith is a constant quality of life, not just a Christmas decoration. It’s a way of being, not merely the aesthetic feeling of a season.
We shouldn’t have to go somewhere else for what is best and most important, and we should always be home on Christmas morning, even when we have to be away.