Chesterton Tribune



Life and Opinions: Christmas ghosts

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Editor’s note: “Christmas ghosts” was originally published in the Dec. 21, 2001, edition of the Chesterton Tribune, some three months after 9/11 and two months after Bethlehem Steel Corporation filed for bankruptcy.

It’s 1968, and my father has just manhandled a Scotch pine through the front door, banged it into the living room, and with Clark Griswold’s finesse--but none of his humor--wrestled it into a rickety tin stand bought for $1.49 at the Sunoco on the corner.

We’re still living in Milwaukee, in the stone pile on 68th Street that looks like a castle, all the more so in the moonlight which glitters on the snow and bestows on its heaps and drifts the faerie shadows of antiquity.

The house is thick with the fragrance of fresh-cut boughs, like some marvelous Tyrolean perfume. In the fireplace a blaze which would have warmed Sam McGee pops and hisses lustily. Andy Williams, satin voiced and turtle-neck suave, is caroling on the hi-fi. My mother in her apron has just served a platter of holiday delicacies, smoked goose breast and bacon boards, and my sister and I in our pajamas wolf handfuls of the greasy stuff as we hang glass balls on the tree. My father’s working on a Marlboro and his highball, the ice cubes jingling in his tumbler like sleigh bells.

And surveying the scene with a sort of beautific glow are my Grandpa and Grandma Nevers, Armin and Kate. They sit on the patterned gold sofa, sipping their wine, not saying much really, content to watch the generations re-invent Christmas as they themselves had once upon a time. To my young eyes they are impossibly old, infinitely wise, incomparably good, no less full of the saving grace of the season than the Baby Jesus. They are my muses this night. And I know that I have never in my life been happier than I am right now, and perhaps I wonder whether I will ever be so happy again.

Armin and Kate are long since gone. I miss them and think of them often. But never more so than at Christmas, when they come to me and whisper their love and remind me of a moment of joy so intense it hurts my heart. I felt their presence as Meredith and I trimmed our own tree this year. I will feel it on Christmas Eve, as we join my parents and sister and feast once again on smoked goose breast and bacon boards. I feel it now as I write, their ghosts at my side.

Christmas is a ghostly time, when a whiff of cinnamon or the glint of an ornament, children’s laughter or Zuzu’s petals, can open the past to us in urgent and not always welcome ways. We speak of this Christmas and last Christmas and the next Christmas, but in fact there is only one Christmas, the same Christmas we have been celebrating year after year since our childhood, through flush times and lean, through good times and bad, whether we want to or not. For that reason even the gayest Christmas is also the saddest, because we can never truly bury our dead and their ghosts never rest in peace.

Christmas is the season by which we measure the seasons of our lives. It carries the imprint of birth and death, marriage and divorce, health and sickness, farce and tragedy. Through a haze of gold and silver we watch the children grow, we see our parents age, we mark our triumphs, we face our failures. And thus does every Christmas acquire one more layer of psychic sediment to burden us, but also to bless us.

This year we celebrate Christmas in strange and dark days, when our nation is rent by grief and our own little community by dread and the birth of Christ seems like a dream. Yet each of us privately has felt at one Christmas or another what all of us publicly feel on this Christmas. And next Christmas, God willing it be bright and colorful, the ghosts of the year past will visit us and we will know that we are one year older and sadder and maybe gladder too.


Posted 12/23/2020




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