Remembering bright Christmas lights, even the fallen …

TODAY, ReadTheSpirit is proud to welcome back author Cindy LaFerle, whose name you may warmly remember from national magazines. A couple of times each year, Cindy shares a column with ReadTheSpirit and, today, her story is especially for … well, here it is …

For All Who See Christmas Through a Bittersweet Glow
(With Detours to Scotland, Hanukkah & Garrison Keillor)

By Cindy LaFerle

“They were, after all, practical Scots who gifted each other with new underwear and wasted little money on trifles or trimmings.”

A few years ago, one of my newspaper editors challenged me to write an essay for the front page of the Christmas Eve edition. He said he wanted a piece as moving and memorable as Francis Church’s famous New York Sun editorial, “Is There A Santa Claus?”

Talk about pressure. I was grieving the loss of a family member at the time, and I had nothing inspiring (or warm and fuzzy) to say about Christmas. But I forged on as best I could, relying on the old cliché about Christmas illuminating the darkness when we need it most.

Yet Christmas remains a forced and difficult season for me. Like the chains wrapped around Jacob Marley’s ghostly ankles, the secular pressures of the holiday are sometimes more than I can bear.

I resent the tireless marketeers who obligate me to purchase gifts I wouldn’t otherwise consider. I resent the magazine editors who suggest that my yuletide performance—shopping, decorating, cooking, baking, wrapping, card-mailing, entertaining—is never quite enough. And I dread the hot waves of guilt that wash over me when I can’t muster expressions of merriment or religiosity on cue.

But I wasn’t always such a Grinch. As a kid, I bought into the Santa mythology, and for a short time I believed in elves and magic. In those days, the lyrics to Christmas carols seemed fresh and stirring—probably because my parents never played them until after Thanksgiving.

A VEW IN THE ORKNEY ISLANDSEven then, I understood that the real wizards behind the Christmas magic were my paternal grandparents and a half-dozen eccentric great-aunts and uncles from the old country. Charles Dickens couldn’t top those folks when it came to holiday spirit. All were immigrants from Scotland’s Orkney Islands, and during the 1950s and ’60s, their generous Detroit neighborhood was a rich melting pot representing several nationalities and religious denominations.

My grandparents would throw an annual Christmas Eve open house, inviting every relative, neighbor, and friend in town. But their party wasn’t about lavish presents or decorations. They were, after all, practical Scots who gifted each other with new underwear and wasted little money on trifles or trimmings. Their Christmas was all about community.

The Goodmans, who lived across the street and celebrated Hanukkah, always stopped by for a holiday toast, too. The whole house would expand with the aroma of my grandmother’s cooking and the clamor of jovial visitors—so much so that the windows of their modest brick-and-stone Colonial steamed up and I could print my name with a finger in the watery panes.  At some point in the evening, my Aunt Annie, a chain smoker who outlived the other aunts and uncles, performed a Highland sword dance with the fireplace tools in the middle of the living room. Later, someone would pound out a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” on the piano.

Loaded down with boxes of shortbread, pj’s and underwear, my family and I would pile in the car and drive home late in the evening, watching for glimmers of Santa’s sleigh in the night sky.

My Scottish grandparents—and crazy Aunt Annie—died many years ago. Since then, I married and had my own family, but as hard as I tried, I could never recreate the old-country Christmas parties at my grandparents’ home.

And after my father’s fatal heart attack in 1992, the Christmas season became an emotional challenge. Something to muddle through. I couldn’t predict when a bittersweet line from a favorite carol, or another errant ghost of Christmas past, would bring tears. My family and I continued to celebrate our holidays with my dad’s only brother and my cousins. But when my uncle lost his battle with pancreatic cancer several years ago, we faced yet another empty chair at our holiday table.

Thankfully, I’ve arrived at a quiet harbor of acceptance. But I still hold a special place in my heart for every soul who’s suffering a recent loss at holiday time. For the grieving or the newly divorced, those festive commercials highlighting family togetherness can seem downright cruel. Not to mention all the ads that suggest everyone in town is throwing a party and you’re not invited.

Of course, I felt the sparks of genuine Christmas spirit when my own son was a child. The video my husband recorded of our chubby toddler and me making sugar cookies reminds me that holiday traditions needn’t be over-the-top; that the truly sacred moments are the ordinary moments when we are, to borrow from C.S. Lewis, “surprised by joy.”

And those are the moments I’ll hope to recall in years to come.

Watching my widowed mother this year, I suspect this might be the last Christmas she’ll remember with any sense of clarity.  Last year she was officially diagnosed with dementia; she’s losing her hearing and is often confused. It’s my job to see that she is cared for and loved, and that she’s kept as comfortable as possible while we navigate another season of change.

My husband comes from a large family, and for years he’s been lucky enough to rehash the same Christmas traditions and memories with most of them—although his own father died following a long, sad battle with Alzheimer’s this summer.

Aside from the fact that my mother-in-law bakes the best pies in the Midwest, it should go without saying that we need to spend some quality holiday time on that side of the family tree. My son needs the unconditional love of his paternal grandmother and extended family—just as I did many years ago. My in-laws, bless them all, also invite my mother to their holiday celebrations. Their tables are always expanding to include new partners, nieces, nephews, stepchildren, and grandkids, and I know that my mom and I are always counted as family in their crowd.

And yet. Whenever I’m toasting Christmas with my in-laws, I can’t quite shake the sense that I’m an orphan looking through a window at someone else’s feast; or an obligatory guest at a cocktail party. These people have holiday memories and histories of their own, and I enjoy hearing them. But their nostalgia isn’t mine.

My dear husband reminds me that we do honor our own traditions here at our house—and that we have the power to turn off the Christmas Machine. We have it in us to make some family memories of our own. A few years ago, we started keeping a (mostly) gift-less Christmas, donating money to our favorite charities in honor of loved ones. And now that our son is grown and living in Chicago, the highlight of our holiday is his homecoming. When he’s back in Detroit, his old friends inevitably wind up at our house, and we fully celebrate the chance to reconnect with “our kids” from the neighborhood.

So here it comes again, ready or not.

As Garrison Keillor once said, “A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.”  At some point during the holiday rush, we’ll uncork a bottle of wine or two by the fire with other cherished friends who’ve weathered life’s trials and turning points—not just the holidays—with us. That’s when I’ll remember, as my Scottish grandparents taught me, that a real clan includes dear friends and neighbors who are with us now, not just the people we’re related to. I’ll take a deep breath and it will hit me that everything is just as it should be.

Even the imperfect and the undone.

Care to Read More from Cindy LaFerle?

ANNE MORROW LINDBERGH’S GIFT: Two years ago, Cindy wrote a column on the legacy of “Gift of the Sea,” a book that has touched countless lives. If you’d like more great reading, here’s Cindy’s 2008 column on Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

VISIT CINDY’S “HOME OFFICE”: Here is how Cindy describes herself in her creative “Home Office” website: Formerly the editor of Innsider, a national travel magazine, my portfolio also includes clips from more than 60 different magazines and newspapers, including Reader’s Digest, The Detroit News & Free Press, Better Homes & Gardens, Country Gardens, Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion, Victoria, Writer’s Digest, and The Christian Science Monitor. My personal essays are anthologized in a variety of likely (and unlikely) places, from Guideposts gift books to a McDougal Littell American Literature textbook for 11th graders. I currently write a Sunday column for the new Royal Oak Patch.

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