For reasons that I’m sure have everything to do with my childhood, Christmas has not always been a time of great joy for me. But I married a man whose family Christmas traditions run deep, thanks in no small part to his father’s love of the holiday. His family tree was merry with its colorful lights and ornaments with stories: an antique elf named Richard Millhouse Red Thing, a salt dough three-breasted woman, and the perfect angel for the Christmas tree top. There were labored over delicious meals, tins of cookies, the best wines of the year saved for the occasion, the white linen tablecloth dusted off, and homemade desserts.
Yet the most memorable part of Christmas, for me, was the lining up of the stuffed animals, or The Team as they were known. The Team’s job was to deliver presents to children around the world. With Ed, aka Santa, a teddy bear with short, plush fur at the helm of the “sleigh” (an old, wooden grain scoop), leading a menagerie of animals: Effizio the fox, Margaret the river otter, a clan of donkeys–Burks, Beebs, and Booey–antique elephants and paisley-patterned bovines. On Christmas morning, as we opened our stockings, we heard of the travails from the night before. There was usually a giant storm, some drama (I’ll never forget the year the reindeer went on strike), intrigue, maybe a thwarted mutiny, and always animals that saved the day! Awards were given. I remember the year the team dentist, Beaver with his protruding teeth, won, M.V.D., Most Valuable Donkey. And to the new members of the team, Rookie of the Year.
Once my husband and I had children of our own, and started having Christmas morning at home we too lined up the animals–but the stories and drama were still the domain of my father-in-law and when we’d arrive for afternoon lunch, he’d regale us.
My father-in-law died right before Covid locked us all down. Feeling lost and sad that first Christmas, we skipped town. We’d never not been at home for Christmas. We stayed on a farm in St. Lucia where the owner Paul cooked delicious Rasta meals for us in his clay pot. On Christmas day, he and his wife took us to the local mud baths. That night, we sat at the only table in the only restaurant in town, as a lively party of neighbors took over the rest of the establishment. It was a glorious trip, just what we needed: so warm, so different. But was it Christmas?
I don’t remember what we did the next year so I asked my husband. “Home,” he said, to my surprise, as I couldn’t recall a detail.
This year, again, we planned to travel. Our son was spending the year in Germany and we wanted to have Christmas there. Since we leave before Christmas, I told my husband we didn’t need a tree. They are such a hassle, not to mention expensive, and I’d even read in the paper there might be a shortage. Why bother getting a tree? I pleaded my case. My husband ignored me, and bought our favorite, a Frazier fir, this one smaller than usual that he put on a table. He trimmed it, watered it, stabilized it when it tilted, hung the colored lights, festooned it with his favorite ornaments–an oversized acorn, a library mouse holding a stack of books, Santa on a bike, a mini canoe. It was too warm for a fire in the fireplace, but jazzy acoustic Christmas tunes blared through a Bluetooth speaker.
As I sat on the sofa watching my husband and admiring the tree, so grateful to be married to someone who understands the importance of ritual and tradition, I saw him put Frank, an antique elephant with piercing blue eyes, on the top of the tree where his father would once have placed the angel.