The Christmas You Get

Last weekend I realized I’m heading into my 51st Christmas.  Not that I don’t have 50 of every other day of the year under my belt, but we tend to remember holidays in ways the third Thursday of April can’t match.

As I began remembering Christmases, I wondered how many years could I pin to a specific memory, how many could I put in order.  (Another thought: does it really matter?)  I mentioned this to Adrienne and some friends and if nothing else, it’s a great conversation starter.  “That was the Christmas that….”

I have no memory of my first Christmas, although there is a home movie of me, just up on wobbly legs, suddenly sitting down and crushing a model gas station my father painstakingly assembled the previous evening.  (Even then, it seems, I had it in for oil companies.)

Nineteen sixty-six was the year I managed to remove a fingertip in a kindergarten accident.  I remember staring through a window in the surgeon’s office at the image of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on top of Rochester General Hospital, trying not to cry as the dressing on the wound was changed.  I do not associate Rudolph’s image with pain, which must be some sort of Christmas magic.

Was 1977 the year of the big Christmas Eve snowstorm?  We seemed fated on the 24th to endure a (then) rare snowless Christmas.  I remember a few flakes falling as my brother and I set out in the early evening for the usual round of visits.  By 2 a.m. Christmas morning, we were pushing his Mercury Capri through unplowed streets; I think we finally abandoned it on Seville Drive, a block from home.

I pulled out paper and tried to make an actual list; I checked it more than twice.  In all, I can put a specific memory to 29 of 50 Christmases, although I’m not sure I have each in the correct year.  (Again, does it matter?)  Some memories, especially the early ones, are not of distinct years, but eras with family traditions regularly re-enacted, each iteration changing only slightly and adding to the collective memory.  All those Christmas eve visits, first with my dad’s family, then my mom’s.  In between I would wipe away condensation on the back seat car window to spot the over-decorated house on Browncroft Boulevard (Empire Boulevard?) as we sped by on Route 47 North, faster than Santa’s sleigh.

In those early years, when upset or scared, I was encouraged to “think of something nice, like Christmas” to sooth myself.  It’s a good tactic.  My Christmas thoughts then were generic, furnished with evergreen trees and lights and boxes wrapped in pretty paper that must contain gifts more wonderful than any real present ever was, or could be.

One difference between children and adults is that children live with dreams and adults with memories.  Christmas, like the third Thursday in April, is – by one measure – just another day in your life.  If your life is good, you’ve probably had many good Christmases and Christmas memories.  If not, your Christmases and memories reflect that too.  Most of us, by the half-century mark, have a mix of each.  While I prize some Christmas memories over others, I can’t say I would trade any, because happy or not, they mark periods of my life that made me what I am.

The Christmas sold to us through commerce and media is the Christmas imagined by a scared and upset child hoping to find comfort.  The real Christmas, the one we’ll remember as “That was the year that…” is more complex and ultimately, more sustaining.  The Christmas you get is the Christmas you get.  I hope yours is merry.

© Mark Floegel, 2011

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