As the colored lights twinkled on the tree, the gifts were exchanged with Grandpa’s perfect scripted “Santa” on the labels to each of his seven children and their spouses and their children. Each of us cousins sat in our Christmas best, holiday dressed, lined up on the davenport with a pile of unopened presents in front of us, fidgeting for our turn to race to the tree and read the tag. “To Jimmy,” I smiled, “from Santa.” Then it was Jimmy’s turn to pick a gift.
Into the evening of Christmas Day as a kid, we sang around the living room, voices weak and strong, Grandma playing the piano, aunts embracing mandolins and guitars and accordions, Grandpa singing too, “Joy to the World” and “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” It was never silent but we sang as night settled, we sang of silence, yes, there it is, in between “silent night” and “holy night,” a pause, a peace, a quiet where we were each held in the leathery palm of Santa’s hand.
By the time I came around, the version of Grandpa I knew doubled as Santa in a flannel shirt and belted brown pants, his green-billed John Deere cap loose on his crown. Grandpa was a gruff old man with shuffling feet and scruffy white hair, watery eyes, paunchy the way a farmer comes to weight, around the middle, along the jaw line, but still packed tight and firm like a bale of hay. Grandpa didn’t talk to me much, and even if he did I was too shy to reply, but every now and then, he gave me a random grin, woke from his resting position in the folding chair on the lawn and called, “Sare, run into the house and fetch me a glass of milk!”
But he had a gift for each of us, wrapped and ribboned, every Christmas. I thrilled to hear him sing even as he aged “Froggy went a courtin'” and any number of other old folk songs.
He was gone before I became a teen, and somewhere in those years, too, my great grandmother Anna B. and her crocheted Christmas ornaments, her aloe plants and criss-crossed peanut butter cookies we forked and baked together in her trailer, her cross-stitched JESUS sign whose optical illusion I couldn’t see, gone, too.
A few months after my son Elvis was born, so too went my other grandfather, eight years ago almost to the day. I had more years with him–a quarter century, actually–and still the strongest memories that cling are bristly cheeked smooches he requested, casting lines and catching fish at campsites as a child.
This season is a dizzying spin of bitter and sweet as I get older. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day aren’t the same anymore; there are new living rooms we gather in, new traditions, empty gaps and wistful glances into the past that ache with longing for the days-gone-by and those-who’ve-gone-before.
It’s no wonder we have such a hard time summoning up the courage to be merry and bright with the weight of those who’ve gone away pressing down on us. It would be easy to stay in mourning, or try, like we do, to fill the gaps of the past with noise here in the present.
And yet memory is a conduit of spirit, its embers glow in the fireplace, sparking with warmth and light. There are so many ghosts of Christmases past haunting every bough and branch, but if we let those spirits in, they shine on in their purest form, with us always.
I hear tales of my grandpa around the dinner table at Thanksgiving and Christmas and nod and smile about the man I mostly know by handed down memories. With joy, by the power of God–who is love–we remember the purest essence of a person. When the Holy Spirit abides in us, he transforms the ghosts of Christmases past from haunts into a singing choir of hallelujahs.
And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. – Matthew 28:20b