Christmas is the present that we give ourselves. It is a ribbon wrapped box of our experience that reveals who we are and what we have become. Each gift is a vision of successes and failures, hopes and dreams, all seen clearly through cold crystalline air. There is no illusion, no Scrooge-like “bit of undercooked potato” in our memory of the past. When we are young everything surprises us. There is excitement in the naïve extravagance of wishes, joy in our willingness to believe. When we grow older Christmas becomes a place of memories. The wood smoke, the carols, and holly bring them all back with a rush. Remembering is not self-indulgent. It is a blessing for which we have paid.
Memories are the only gifts that we are ever given which persist for all eternity. Thought is not an illusion that easily disappears. Each second is an action or reaction to smiles and tears, love and hate. There are no holes or empty spaces. The memory of our lives is a solid walkway, laid brick by brick that follows us forever. Memory is the fabric of our soul.
I’m always amazed that my memory is so full of the faces of people. They smile out at me more vividly than I remember, and more fondly. Faces long ago forgotten, come rushing back with the perfect sense of being near to someone, and I realize… only that person could give me those memories. I recall not only the sounds of voices but the way they made me feel. We never pay enough attention to people. Then several years down the road a face or voice is all that’s left of a person’s life. I suspect a basic principle of heaven is that we remember the past with a fondness and humor which we didn’t realize was there, carefully forgetting much of the sorrow.
Christmas changes us, just as time changes our perception of reality. We are often told to live in the moment, that being centered in the present is the key to happiness. But that is not true. The world is full of creatures who understand only the present. Humanity is defined by a memory of the past. It is our key to imagine the future, the basic element of choice.
We view ourselves in relation to others, even when completely alone. All Christmas dreams are different… and yet the same. Every person sees Christmas as a place. Its setting provides a backdrop for imagination. For some it is a place remembered, for others a place desired. Christmas is always less about gifts than expectation. It is comforting to remember the good and forget the bad. It is a human act, and generous. The past is painted with forgiveness. Even the poorest Christmases are better in our memory.
The most perfect holiday that I can recall was spent as a visitor in the home of an invalid aunt. I got a puppy. But the visit itself was more important than any gift. My aunt lived in a small country town with cattle grazing in the field beside the house. Everywhere was garden stubble, withered vine, and frosted flowers. Ancient trees creaked in the wind and whispered secrets of ancestors I had never known. That home was my connection to a past which was larger and more enduring than anything I had experienced. The house was full of family, full of friends. Everything was there to give a child a sense of purpose, a sense of place.
My world has always been a world of horses and dogs. Apparently, the second word that I uttered on this earth was “horse.” My parents could not afford even a pony, but they scrimped and saved to buy me a toy “Pogo” horse. I loved the look of it, the potential to ride endlessly. But the little wheels were easily hung up, so Pogo hardly moved. It took me a long time to understand how much my parents had sacrificed for something which was little used. It was an act of giving and hoping that was too great.
The only perfect Christmas gift I ever received was a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun. Yes, they hid it behind the tree, just like in the movie. Perhaps the gun was so special because I got it before I deserved it. My parents’ faith demanded a certain maturity that followed me into other things.
Not all Christmas memories are perfect. There are stories too painful to tell… but never to remember. Some are the near misses of living that show our frailty. Each year when presents are given, we offer a part of ourselves. We never ask for the present to be returned. Neither is emotion taken back. What we have given remains. When a relationship wanes, a bit of ourselves continues to be a part of the other person’s life. Emotion is a liquid sentiment that moves between two souls. For every word, every deed, there is a place. If it is difficult to judge the significance of someone no longer a part of our lives, that is often a measure of how much they were loved.
The excitement of Christmas often compels us to overextend. We try too hard and expect too much. When things are not perfect, we feel let down. There is no disappointment as sharp as having good intentions blunted. I have come to terms with the past and give credit for the effort of a human heart. In memory, only the good remains.
Years ago, I went off to join the Army, right in the middle of a war. It would be easy to recall that Christmas with sadness. But what I remember most is the beauty of a home left behind. The snows of a winter storm had covered everything with white. There wasn’t another person in sight as I traveled through the countryside. Stopping on a hill above a frozen lake, I clapped my hands and heard the sound roll out and come back across the snow. It was a land washed clean, timeless and primitive. I knew that I would be linked to it, wherever I might go.
When I was a soldier, my wife and I were poor people doomed by association with the well-to-do. In our first Christmas together, I put on a very elaborate ruse. I told her that I really didn’t want anything, and that we should keep everything low keyed. I said that I would get her something small when I had the chance. Then I acted as if I had forgotten about it. She pouted. When she reminded me, I put it off.
One Saturday, I made a big deal of taking the dog out for a run. It was all a cover so that I could drive to a small racetrack in nearby Southern Pines. There a curmudgeonly old saddle maker ran a tack shop. He delighted in bringing grown women to tears by telling them that the racing elite had fallen on such hard times, they were selling the children’s ponies for pinto burgers. Together, he and I selected dressage spurs and a pair of riding chaps for my wife. He said that he “knew” which ones she wanted. I suspected that she had already worn away half their value.
On the way over my dog had kept poking her cold nose in the back of my neck, impatient to be afield. When I returned to the car, she was borderline delusional and could no longer be fooled. We stopped at a huge field outside of town where the grass was perfectly green. I didn’t even walk away from the car, merely pointed and let her go. The setter covered the field in just a few moments. She zigzagged across its breadth and ran its edge without a motion or sound from me. Her white tail whipped like a metronome with the delighted intensity that only a dog can fathom. All too soon it was over, and I loaded her back into the car. I remember thinking that it was a fleeting joy and unavoidable betrayal.
I kept up the ruse of having no present for my wife, right up to Christmas Eve. Then I stayed up half the night cleaning and polishing her riding boots. I wanted the new spurs to look perfect, if only for one moment in time. I wanted everything to look perfect, perhaps too much or too cleverly.
In the morning my wife was crying because I had forgotten her. Then she cried because I had gotten exactly what she wanted… and because she hadn’t gotten me enough. She and the dog were both mad at me, because I had tricked them.
When I was very small there seemed to be a Santa on every corner. In my innocence, I managed to believe that they were all the real Santa Claus. We are much the same with people, choosing to trust to good intentions. It is not easy to believe. But we are a people sustained by optimism. The Christmases of our past confirm that hope fulfills dreams. The joy we bring to others strengthens faith in ourselves. It takes very little effort to accumulate lots of Christmas memories. Each year you and I become better at seeing what is missed or ignored, better at feeling sympathy for the forgotten, and more able to laugh at the foolish. We cannot live life with such speed that we forget to make memories. They always follow, and become our dearest gifts.