As we approach the holiday season every year, I find nostalgia wrapping tighter and tighter around my heart, pumping increasing levels of desire into every artery as the countdown to Christmas commences. This festive escalation begins in early autumn when the leaves begin to turn and I start considering whether or not I might be able to get away with lighting a fire in the fireplace. Being that I now make my home in southern California, I feel the self-imposed need to be clandestine with my use of the fireplace. On a day like today, I reason with myself: would it be wrong to switch on the AC so that I can light the fire? The flicker of firelight warms my heart in an unaccountable way, and the slippery slope to Christmas has begun.
As the days grow shorter, I become eager for twilight to descend sooner, until darkness eclipses our activities before we even eat dinner. Those dark evenings leave a visceral chill in my bones, even if the chill is missing in the air. Sooner or later the rain will arrive in my neighborhood, and with the autumnal gloom, bring out that damp smell of leaves, still clinging to the sidewalk, uninterred by nature. My ears prick up at the rumble of schoolbuses dropping off children, accelerating and then pausing, stopping and starting in their repetitive duties. Soon, the fall music programs will begin in earnest, with kids getting dressed up and their parents crowding into the musty auditoriums. Excitement is in the air.
By this point, I have slowly begun to move into holiday music in the house. I realize that this is a point of contention with many people, the main question being, when is it alright to begin playing holiday music? As a way to slowly ramp up to the season, I start with music that is not overtly Christmas, usually classical music like Corelli or Handel. But as November wanes, I begin to lean heavily towards the Christmas carols. With each holiday song that I welcome, remembrances are prompted in my heart, and this feeling of wonder and desire grows stronger and stronger. On the day of Thanksgiving itself, all bets are off. Christmastime is officially here. Carols spill forth from jubilant speakers.
You can guess at the rest of the events that spur my euphoria: decorating the Christmas tree, rehearsing Advent music with music ensembles, searching through the flood of catalogues for possible gifts, filling out Christmas card lists, wrapping presents, and counting down the days on the Advent calendar. These escalating events that culminate in Christmas each pull a cord in my spirit that releases a flood of emotions, a sensation of warmth and all being right with the world. Everything becomes evocative.
I am describing nostalgia—but nostalgia for what? Granted, some of these are triggers from things that I experienced in my youth, and so re-tracing my pathway through this season causes me to thrill at the milestones that mark my destination. Yes, I understand that they naturally carry an evocative effect. But it is more than that. There is something much deeper. It’s as if my heart is on a journey to find some idyllic Christmas from the past, a Christmas which never even existed.
I have never experienced a white Christmas, and yet, I can say—along with the holiday song—that I dream about it, and have all my life. I grew up in southeast Portland, Oregon, and so the precipitation that we experienced on Christmas was most likely rain or ice. But we always crossed our fingers and yearned for snow, not just because it would mean school closures, but because it seemed like what Christmas should be. We longed for snow to complete the season. In fairness, I have known plenty of people from the northeast who pray against snow, because they have experienced its obvious inconveniences. And yet, the popularity of this Irving Berlin classic testifies to the fact that we all understand the longing in the song, regardless of our weather preferences. We may not all dream of a white Christmas, but we do all dream of an idyllic one—Christmas as it should be.
The thing is, when I think of what Christmas should be, I cannot think of any one particular Christmas from the past that represents that captivating ideal. There’s no glittering Christmas on a hill that my heart is trying recreate. Isn’t that interesting? Instead, it’s as if my ideal has sprung from countless celebrations that I have seen over the years, all of which missed the mark to some degree. I’m searching for a Romantic ideal, and my heart mistakenly believes that I’ve lived it before.
Perhaps all of these singular memories from my Christmases past have been taken out of context and glorified, the dross of the day removed and the gold recombined to form an unrealistic picture in my memory. I am seeking to revivify the odds and ends of Christmases past, reassembling them into an ideal that I can live over and over again. My idyllic Christmas is a holiday puzzle formed of my memories, a kind of Frankenstein of the most beautiful, seasonal variety.
I once asked my dad if there was one Christmas in his childhood that stood out as he remembered Christmas. He couldn’t think of any one in particular. Rather, he could remember the sense of people he loved being there, and sharing with them in the joy of the moment. In a moment of self-reflection, he simply said “I miss my parents,” with a far-off look in his eye. I think that he needed his parents to be there in order for Christmas to be everything it should be. It was a piece of Christmas from his past that he longed to reclaim. Without it, something was missing, no matter how sweet the celebration. It was his white Christmas.
I remember that it did snow one year, several days after Christmas. My wife and I were staying with my parents over the vacation, and the two of us were burning the midnight oil, doing one of those massive jigsaw puzzles. Shortly before midnight, I glanced out the window and saw huge, fluffy flakes floating down outside, as if a huge feather pillow had been dumped from the heavens. We woke my parents and then ran outside in our bare feet, whooping and hollering in the drifting snow. The joy was palpable, not just because of the snow, but because of the joy of sharing that moment with people that we loved. It was our white Christmas too.
And so for you, on this holiday season, may I wish that your days be “merry and bright,” and that you discover your white Christmas somewhere amongst the paper and ribbon strewn on the floor, the recurring carols that frequent your car radio, the Christmas cards from friends and loved ones that accumulate there on your coffee table, and the precipitation outside which may or may not be…white.
© 2013 Daniel Radmacher