I have always been giddy about Christmas. Since the moment I realized that Christmas existed, the season has energized me in a way I can scarcely explain. For an entire month, I feel like a child with my nose pressed against the windowpane, staring into a snowy landscape of inexplicable joy.
I know it doesn't fill me because of religion, or because of Paganism. Or because of the conglomeration of traditions and rituals that dozens of cultures bring to the holiday. Its roots spread out farther than the strongest tree, and each root contributes its own piece to a culmination that is different to so many people. There are countless cultures, faiths, ethnicities and societies that have contributed to the modern concept of Christmas, but that’s not why I love Christmas.
I know it’s none of those things that make me love Christmas, but I do know it’s because of all of those reasons. I love the risqué and utterly hedonistic undertones that the Pagans lent us; both riotous and lusty, which still makes Christmas feel so merry. I love the reverence that the Church brought to us; the somber and haunting elegance, the Christmas Carols, and the undeniable charm. The magical, dark and joyous conglomeration of what Christmas is. Whatever the hell it is, I love it. And I believe the reason I love it, is the sense of wonderment and awe that was inspired in my tiny soul, when I was barely old enough to understand that Christmas existed. And that stupefaction, I believe, was inspired by my grandmother.
My Grandmother was the Grand Dame of story telling.
Gogo, as we called her, had a keen imagination. Until she died, she mesmerized us with long detailed stories about anything from her history to the fantastical. We were told about World War II in London, England; how she and my mother were so tired of spending their days in the dark, damp bomb shelters, or in their house with the curtains drawn, that one night they decided to brave the streets and go to the movie theater. That night, not only was the back of the theater bombed, but when they returned home, their house had been as well. “If we hadn’t gone to the movies that evening, you all wouldn’t be here, Duckies,” she’d explain in her thick cockney accent. And she would tell the story in such detail, that some nights I felt as if I had been there. I could smell the rancid margarine they were given to eat on rations, and I could taste the cold tea. I could hear the whistles of the bombs as they fell from the sky, and then the dreaded silence, only seconds before they detonated. I could feel the explosion all around me.
But those aren’t the only stories that Gogo told. Gogo believed in the spiritual, the unexplained, the paranormal, and about everything else odd that you might imagine. And in turn, we believed it too. The combination of the fact that she believed in these things herself, combined with her breathtaking narrative, imprinted these ideas in our minds as truth.
Gogo told us about poltergeists; an entity she really did believe in. When we’d be around her, strange things would always seem to be happening; things would disappear then reappear in the oddest places. It always frightened me, and sometimes I would cry. “Don’t worry Duckie,” she’d tell me. “The Poltergeists are mischievous, but they won’t hurt you. When you encounter one, just count your blessings, and let it bring you comfort. Because they give us proof that there is more to this world than we can imagine.”
She would also tell us yarns about ghosts and being visited by her dead relatives; but this wasn’t fantasy, to her this was all true. “My brother just visited me in my bedroom,” she’d tell me. “Look ducky, you can still see the imprint on the blankets where he sat beside me. Don’t be silly, of course a dent that perfect could not be made any other way. When he sat, I could feel his weight, tugging at my top sheet.
She told us once about a Flying Saucer which had flown right over her head, as she was sipping on tea on her porch. She described in dizzying detail every single facet of what she saw; the way the air smelled when it passed overhead, similar to that strange metallic smell right after a rain. She told us how its enormity covered the sky and appeared to eclipse the sun; she described how theforce of its velocity blew back her hair, and the wake of its tremendous wind nearly pushed her over. “Of course I didn’t imagine it, Ducky. I saw it as clearly as I see you right now.”
Gogo also had out-of-body experiences. They always began in the twilight between sleep and awake, she explained, when her body would begin to violently shake. Suddenly she would hear a sort of a pop, and she’d find herself free of her physical restraints. She would rise slowly to the ceiling, until she could see every speck of dust and fragment of cobweb only inches from her eyes. Then after years of practice, she was able to push herself through the ceiling and into the world. Eventually she could go anywhere she wanted. “I visited my sister last night in England; I did you know. I could see the frock she was wearing; it was brown plaid cotton. She was making herself a cup of tea, and I kept touching her, and she would swat the air like a fly. This morning I called her, and I told her I liked her new brown dress, and she almost fell over, Duckies. Because she didn’t know how I knew.”
She believed it all, and we did as well. So when she began to stretch the truth a little, and tell us stories about fairies, especially one little fairy named Joey who lived in our fireplace, I had no reason to doubt her. The stories she told us about Joey were as complicated and as full of imagery as any of stories. But she also would provide physical evidence that Joey existed; if one of our toys broke, for instance, all we needed to do was leave it in the fireplace for Joey to fix. And sure enough, when we awoke the next day, our damaged toys were good as new, and sitting in the fireplace.
So when Gogo told us about Santa Claus, she did it in such a magical way it was clearly plausible. Santa was as real to me as Hitler was in World War II.
We weren’t given the American version of Santa Claus. The corpulent white man in the cheap red suit wasn’t a part of my upbringing. Father Christmas was somebody that Charles Dickens might describe; a cross between a hippie, and the God of Wine, Bacchus. He was tall, gaunt; with long flowing hair. In fact, I think he had a little bit of Jesus in him. He wore a Victorian crown of mistletoe and holly; and he wore tattered velvet suits of red and green; his shoulders were dusted with perpetual snow. I preferred his solemn sweetness to the other Santa Claus’ obtuse jolliness. I loved his wise Victorian manner; I loved the winter plants that wound around his forehead; I loved the cane with which he walked.
Of course we weren’t spared a single solitary incredible detail. How his leather boots were a bit charred, because he wore them too close to the fire. How he had a burn on his green velvet sleeve, from an accident with a bit of soot. How his brown satchel, tied up with brown twine, could hold enough presents for all the children in the world. And how, exactly, this sorcerer, this magical elf, possessed the powers that he did; and how Santa came to be.
My grandmother would have never been so silly as to try and pass off a department store Santa as the real Santa. We would never have fallen for that rouse; we saw their plastic boots and synthetic beards, and we couldn’t fathom how other children believed such nonsense. Those charlatans, we were told, were just men hired by the stores to pose as Santa Claus, to sell merchandise. We also knew that the slightly drunken fool that appeared at various holiday parties wasn’t Santa either. Santa was dressed in real velvet and fur and leather; and he was an elf. No taller than four feet. He wouldn’t look like a man, she explained. He would look like a mythical creature; something we’d never seen before.
But we would never see Santa.
When we would ask her how she knew for sure that none of those imposters were the real Santa, she explained it was because no one had ever seen the real Santa. He existed only in legends and stories; passed down by elves and Santa himself. Even if you tried, you’d never catch a glimpse of the real Santa, because the moment you opened your eyes to try and catch him, he’d disappear. And this mystery made it all the more spectacular.
Just as most of my friends were told, Santa came down the chimney and filled the stockings that the children had hung there on Christmas Eve. But in our house, Santa would come and bring them to our individual beds, and would lay them across our sleeping feet. Just knowing that Santa would be in my very bedroom that night was more excitement than my heart could stand.
But the oddest tradition we had, was there was absolutely no sign of Christmas in the house when we went to bed on Christmas Eve. There wasn’t a tree; there wasn’t as much as a wreath or poinsettia. There was nothing; not a stitch of anything that would remind anyone that it was Christmas Eve. And when we hung our stockings in the bare room on the night before Christmas, it was a simple and strange event; almost haunting and unreal. The anticipation of it all would make my heart beat so fast, I could hardly catch my breath.
But that was nothing compared to what it was like in the morning.
We’d awaken to feel the weight of our laden stockings, which had been laid across our ankles. With every slight movement we’d make with our legs, the stocking would shift, and the paper on the packages would rustle and crunch. I would always reach down first with my eyes closed; I liked to peruse the contents of my stocking first utterly blind, with only my fingertips. It didn’t much matter what was in those packages; only that a magical elf had visited me in the night and left them. And when at last I would open my eyes to see the colorfully wrapped packages in Christmas colors, it felt as though a little fairy dust had been sprinkled on my shoulders.
Then when all the presents were open, and I was sitting in bed surrounded by torn paper and presents, it was time to creep downstairs.
Of course the reality was I was being knocked over by my older brother and sister. My brother would step on me to get downstairs first. But in my own mind, I was silently creeping; slowly; almost too afraid to take it all in.
I was afraid to look, because as we slept, dreaming of sugar plums and the rest, something miraculous had happened. Something magical and unbelievable.
The naked house which was devoid of any Christmas spirit had been transformed overnight. By fairies. There was fairy dust in front of the fireplace. There was fairy dust on the stairwell. There was fairy dust on the presents.
A fully decorated tree had appeared as we slept, and was surrounded by every bit of garland, tinsel, trim, and Christmas joy that a child could possibly imagine. Everything sparkled and shimmied; lights danced everywhere, Christmas music filled the room, and the smell of mincemeat pie wafted from the kitchen. Santa had come. He’d really come. He’d really been here. And with the help of dozens of busy fairies, Christmas had come to our house.
I hardly remember any of the presents I ever got, only a few stand out in my mind. What lingers is that feeling; that thrilling and enchanting joy, where I knew for one day that all I needed to do was believe, and I would discover that the world was truly a magical place, filled with miracles.
Since that time, my life has taken many devilish turns. I wouldn’t say I’ve become jaded, but I’ve adopted a healthy wallop of cynicism over the years, and I am sometimes filled with doubt and mistrust. But when I see the first Christmas lights go up on my block, or when I sing Christmas carols or decorate the evergreen I just fetched in the cold, all of that goes away. I am suddenly that child again, with my nose pressed against the windowpane, staring into a snowy landscape of inexplicable joy. I am once again transported back to a time when I believed that life was both a marvel and a phenomenon; to a time when I trusted the world and everything and everyone in it.
And that is why I love Christmas.
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