Christmas has always been magical for me. I suppose part of the reason for that is that I grew up in a family that made the celebration of Christmas a very important event in our lives as children and adults. I never remember a time as a child, however, when a gift I thought I was going to get was the center of my attention. We had a simple tradition in our family. Each sibling received one major gift and what ever Santa left in our stockings. The “major” gift was really not very major by today’s standards and was more often than not, something pretty practical-usually something we needed for school or something to special to wear.
No, the magical nature came from something different than what we were going to get from Santa or anybody else. I suppose it started in my earliest experiences of the special holiday. When my brother, sister and I were very young, we were sent off to bed on Christmas Eve with the reminder that if we didn’t go to sleep the “magic won’t happen.” There was no Christmas tree, there were no gifts, no sign, as I remember it, of any Christmas trimmings. I will never figure out how our parents did it, but when we woke up the next morning there was a trimmed tree with sparkling lights and tons of tinsel, colorfully wrapped gifts all around the tree. It was truly magical.
Although that tradition faded rather quickly as we grew a little older and we began to stay up later. (I even caught my mommy kissing “Santa Claus” before it was a song). But I never lost that sense of waiting, anticipating, and expecting something magical to happen. Soon after those earliest memories, I discovered the magic in the large family gatherings at Nana and Granddad’s house, my grandparents home for over a half of a century. There were aunts and uncles, cousins everywhere and family friends who had been around so long we called them aunt or uncle without knowing how we were connected. The food had been cooking for days before we arrived and filled all of the rooms with a soft bouquet of love, the laughter was full and flowed so naturally with great warmth like thick maple syrup. And all of the children played, regardless of age.
Naturally there was a certain excitement about the few presents that we were going to open later but they were few and simple by a family agreement. The highlight of the evening for me, however, was the music. I not sure how it started or if there was ever a plan but toward the end of the dinner someone would break out in song and we would begin to sing familiar Christmas carols. I think that most of the adults in my mother’s family sang in a church choir or at least had a love for music. Few church choirs had such beautiful harmony. But I remember thinking, even as a kid, as I look around this huge table with somewhere between 25 to 30 people gathered around singing from the bottom of their respective souls, how special it was. I would get goose bump on my arms. Somehow the chaos was gone and for the moment at least, we were one spirit. My family, singing, smiling, making eye contact with each other, seemed literally to glow in the light of the table candles. It was truly magical.
As an adult I captured some of that magic through the experiences, and the eyes and ears, of my children, during the holidays. I could not replace the large family gatherings as our families grew and went in many different directions but I tried very hard to introduce them to the possibility of the magical, the mystery, to encourage them to use their imaginations. Every one of my daughters went on hippopotamus hunts in the suburbs, looked for alligators under their beds, and quietly searched for magic fairies under the leaves in the forest. I have done magic tricks to their utter amazement until they finally catch on to my simple hand moves, usually around four. But they will all tell you that I used to be able to do magic. I have now replicated those experiences with my grandchildren, until they are too cynical or too old.
I share these familiar family stories because I wonder as we approach this Christmas “holy day,” if we have lost our ability as a society to look for, to wait for, to anticipate those magical moments in life. Have we become so materialistic, so rational, so cynical that we no longer see the magical, majestic, the mystical, the mystery? Certainly it is not our children’s fault but do they still have the capacity to anticipate the magical, and the mystical? As we watch our children ripping of the paper off another gift on Christmas morning, trying to go as fast as they can so they can get to the next one, have they lost their ability to see the “unseeable”. I wonder what their memories of Christmas will be thirty or forty years from now.
And what about us older folks? Can we actually experience the birth of a loved child, or a grandchild and not believe in something greater than what we can see, measure or understand? Or can we really sit on a beach and watch the sun slowly sinking into the water and not wonder how we got so lucky to be part of this beautiful and unique planet. Are all of the fairies under the damp leaves gone for our children, lost, never to be found because we haven’t taken the time to look for them? Are there no more hippopotamus in the suburbs or have we just stopped “seeing” them?
Christmas should be a time to slow down and look for the magic, the mystical that is naturally part of life. There is a certain magic, for example, in the idea that a peasant Jewish child was born to a very poor and marginalized family and his life somehow ended up changing the course of human history. Most of us have stopped looking for magic and fail to recognize that it begins in the looking. There is an anticipation, an expectation, an excitement, that is magical in itself. The truth is, I suspect, that there is “magic” all around us. Maybe when if start looking again we will see the magic in friendship, in song, in prayer, in hug of a child, in a meal shared, in a reconciled relationship, in a healed heart.
I would suggest that we all try slowing down this year and maybe with a little help from our children we might see a light winged fairy fluttering over our Christmas tree, we might get goose bumps when a choir sings, we might feel the peace on earth and goodwill for all of our fellow travelers, and if you go slow enough and look very carefully in the shadows you just might see a special Christmas hippopotamus.
May you have a loved filled magical Christmas.