As a small child, spending Christmas somewhere other than your own house can be very traumatic. How will Santa find you? Will you get presents if you’re at a different address? What if there is no snow where you are going? Can it really be Christmas without snow? It’s all very stressful.
In spite of this looming psychosis, my parents opted to risk it, and drive us to Cincinnati for Christmas when we were young.
We would arrive at my Grandfather’s house a few days before Christmas and marvel at the Christmas tree, already set up in the long living room, full of ornaments hand-made by aunts and cousins, each with their own story that my mother or grandfather would tirelessly recount. We would sit on the floor and watch as the miniature Lionel train made its way around the pile of presents that had already accumulated, anticipating our arrival.
You should know that my grandfather loves Christmas. He carefully purchases a truly overwhelming abundance of gifts, each thoughtfully chosen for the recipient, be it grandchild, daughter, or son-in-law. I don’t know when he would start preparing the house for Christmas, but when we arrived, everything would be all laid out. A huge wreath adorned the front door, appearing to block the entrance through the double front door but magically swinging apart just in time. A tiny Christmas tree stood on the table in the front hall, and when you peered out of the windows in the dining room, you could see the glowing white lights on the shrubs in the front yard.
At my grandfather’s house, my sister and I shared the first bedroom at the top of the stairs – it was my mother’s old bedroom, still housing her high school yearbooks and displaying faded photos of a frozen, beaming version of her younger self. My parents would share another room, while my mischievous-gift-giving aunt and her beloved grandmother would share the guest room; a full house for Christmas.
In my grandfather’s high-ceilinged house, with the Christmas tree in the corner, the train weaving in and out of the presents, and a long strand of jingle bells on the door, the Magic of Christmas seemed to come alive and dance around the house, moving through each meal, conversation, game. It is in this place that my first memory of Christmas continues to live.
It was Christmas eve, and my sister and I had just received our grandpa-tuck-in, and now lay motionless, in the mini-cocoons that had become our beds. As any child knows (or former child remembers), getting to sleep on Christmas eve is a truly monumental task. My sister and I were laying quite still, waiting for either sleep or Santa to find us when we heard it – very faint jingle bells. Could it be the bells on Santa’s sleigh?
Unsure of what we had just heard, we refused to move, even to breathe, eager to hear those bells again. And sure enough, there they were, louder and clearer and right outside our window! Unable to get out of our tightly wrapped bedding, we contented ourselves with the knowledge that believing is seeing. We had not imagined it; Santa was here!
The next morning, Santa indeed had come – he had found us, even at our grandfather’s house. Such is the Magic of Christmas.
Recently, we asked my grandfather about this mysterious ringing of the jingle bells, and, to my amazement, he had no memory of this. This man’s memory is a steel trap, so forgetting a carefully executed Christmas scheme involving shaking bells outside a very high second-story window seems most improbable.
Perhaps his strong belief in the Magic of Christmas caused him to deny a role in the ringing bells, so as to keep Christmas alive for me and my sister. Or perhaps, for those whose hearts and homes are open and willing to find the Magic in Christmas, discover that Christmas instead finds them, even when they aren’t looking for it. Even through a strand of jingle bells.