It’s Christmas Eve. After patiently waiting with our mother for the tinkling of the bells telling us the angels had left and the curtain to the living room could be drawn, we stand enchanted by the Christmas tree aglow with lights and the flickering flames of tiny candles. Our father is playing Silent Night on the piano, and as the last notes echo in the room, our attention is drawn to the gifts left for us under the tree. They are unwrapped as was the custom in Germany, and somehow we know that the doll is for my sister. For me, there is a new book! My mother sits on the floor with us and shows us the wonderful colored pictures of the fox and the heron, of the ant and the grasshopper. It is Aesop’s fables, she tells me, and there is always a moral to the story. I can’t wait to leaf through the pages by myself, although since we haven’t had dinner yet, I now nibble on a chocolate oatmeal cookie or decide that perhaps the butter cookie in the shape of a lion peeping out of the papier mache bag Santa holds is more tempting. The lametta glitters and soon we snuff out the candles so they won’t set the tree on fire. My mother remembers that when they were little, one year her young sister’s dress caught fire. The table in the dining room is set with our finest dishes and there are crystal goblets with deep blue and red feet. We are allowed a sip of wine as we drink a toast to my mother’s parents who are across the ocean in Germany.
This is perhaps the first Christmas I remember. But throughout the years there always had to be a tree. Even if it was just for me. Seventy years ago I set up a tree, no more than three feet high, up in a cold water flat in Manhattan. Sixty years ago it was a larger tree accompanied by a manger scene, Italian and German-American traditions keeping company, in a top floor apartment overlooking a square in the heart of Perugia. Fifty years ago it was an even larger tree in a former cardinal’s apartment in Orvieto. Forty years ago it was a manger scene set up by my children in a sheltered niche at the foot of a tree in a chestnut grove.
Now, every year I go into the storeroom in the basement and haul out boxes for these short-lived days. The boxes I want have written on them: Xmas, glass balls, Peruvian presepe, ribbons and paper. The small glass bugle, now in the family for almost a hundred years, will be hung on the tree. The miniature Peruvian terracotta angel from Carolyn will hover over another smaller manger scene, the leaping gold glass deer from New York, bought for Costanza, will go on the tree. But first the coils of lights will be sorted out, accompanied by language that is anything but Christmassy. And then the silver icicles will be hung here and there before adding the shiny balls, some of which are still glass and are so much lovelier than the modern plastic ones. But then they also harbor recollections. And lastly silver lametta to add glitter.
Christmas is the fragrance of my mother’s Stollen and four small hands helping cut out butter cookies in animal shapes and getting sticky as they decorate them with sprinkles. It is secrets whispered behind closed doors and anticipation. Christmas is also people. It is my mother “grandma in a wheelbarrow” when she could no longer walk and was wheeled up to the living room from her bedroom down below. It is moments shared with friends from far and near. It is presents given and received. It is a silver ornament from my granddaughter with a note saying it was probably the only “family” thing-tradition – aside from Stollen – and was meant to say how incredibly proud she was to be part of this family.
One could go on and on for Christmas was and is always Christmas.