A Christmas Story

by Rebecca Barry

veronica holiday card

It is the middle of December, and I keep thinking about a workshop I took a few years ago with Denise around this time. I think the theme was light in winter, and we did a whole series of poses that broke my heart open–Denise is very good at that–and then the homework was to look at the Christmas season with the eyes of a child to find wonder.

I spent the next week trying to do exactly that. We had to travel before Christmas and I said to myself, I’m going to embrace this 5 hour car trip and find wonder. But the kids kept trying to murder each other in the back seat and I hate looking at highways for that long so that didn’t work. (Although come to think of it, maybe that is looking at Christmas through the eyes of child—like are we there yet? How many more hours?) Then on Christmas Eve day I said to Tommy that I was going to find wonder last-minute shopping at the mall, but that didn’t really work either—and after a few more tries I gave up and decided that while Christmas was really nice this year, I’m an adult and that is just the way I’m experiencing life right now because adult things are happening—health scares with my parents, global WTFs?!!! uncertainties, etc.–and that’s the best I can do. I’ll have to find peace and wonder someplace else. Like a bar.
Then we had a Christmas dinner at my sister Maria’s house. After everyone had served themselves food, Maria suggested we go around the table and talk about our first Christmas memory.
I inwardly rolled my eyes, because it seems like older sisters are always telling everyone to stop what they’re doing and do something else.
But my mother thought it was a great idea, and she started by describing the way her parents used to celebrate the holiday, which was to do no decorating at all until Christmas Eve. My mother and my Aunt Weezie would go upstairs to bed in a house with no signs of Christmas in it—no tree, no crèche, nothing. And while they were sleeping my grandparents would get out a bottle or Schnapps and bring in the tree, decorate it, wrap the presents, set up the nativity, so the next morning when my mother and her sister came down the whole house was transformed.  “Everything sparkled,” Mom said now. “Lights and presents and the whole place smelled like pine. My parents would be so tired. Looking back at it, it must have been hard for them—they had their own restaurant and worked very hard—but I didn’t feel any of that at the time. To me, it was magical.”

Dad told a story about being at a settlement school in Kentucky where his father was principal in the 30s. People sent their children to school for the season and it was a three-day walk for some of them. The parents would just send their kids off into the mountains, not expecting to see them for three months, trusting that they would make it to and from school with help from people along the way. Dad was 7 then, and his family lived in a one-room log cabin. On Christmas they would go into the dining hall of the school which had been built by hand and had a bright open great room with high ceilings. The whole place would be decorated with fresh pine boughs and holly berries and all the girls would come down the stairs in white dresses they’d sewn themselves, carrying candles, singing The Holly and the Ivy.
Dad stopped talking then because he was crying.
“I have trouble telling this story because I get very emotional,” he said. “But it was just so beautiful, their dresses and their voices—to me, they looked like angels.”
We were quiet for a minute, and then I talked about the Christmases we spent with my cousins in a huge old house my Aunt Kathy and Uncle Robie had a banister you could slide down for three stories. I remembered how it was so big that the kids and the adults basically separated after breakfast and didn’t see each other until dinner and the hallway upstairs was so wide and long you could get a running start in stockinged feet and slide for what felt like a mile.
“I swear I heard bells outside my window on the roof one year,” I said, and Maria said, “I did too!”
“That was your Grandfather,” Dad said. “He climbed up on the roof and did that with some old bells your aunt had.”
“In his seventies,” Mom said.
Finally my husband Tommy remembered going in to New York City to see the Nutcracker and as he was talking about watching the Christmas tree come up through the stage like a miracle, I realized that it was happening: I was seeing Christmas through the eyes of a child. Children, actually. And it was so full, and none of us remembered the presents–just the way there was a moment of unexpected tenderness or freedom or beauty that transformed everything and felt like magic.

The next morning at the coffee shop I told the barista about our dinner and she said, “Oh older sisters always do that,” and I said, “I know! Including me!” and then she said that kids really do see magic in Christmas. And I said they do, but really, the truth about kids is that they see magic all the time. Which means it’s around us all the time, we just forget to notice it.
So that is my New Year’s resolution for 2018, or even simply this Christmas season. That I can be open to the wonder that is around me, especially when it comes from unlikely places. Like my older sister telling me what to do.