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QUINTESSENCE

What We May Give

NOEL
When snow is shaken
From the balsam trees
And they're cut down
And brought into our houses

When clustered sparks
Of many-colored fire
Appear at night
In ordinary windows

We hear and sing
The customary carols

They bring us ragged miracles
And hay and candles
And flowering weeds of poetry
That are loved all the more
Because they are so common

But there are carols
That carry phrases
Of the haunting music
Of the other world
A music wild and dangerous
As a prophet's message

Or the fresh truth of children
Who though they come to us
From our own bodies
Are altogether new
With their small limbs
And birdlike voices

They look at us
With their clear eyes
And ask the piercing questions
God alone can answer.

- Anne Porter

From my earliest memory as a child, Christmas has always meant something special. Something unique to my family. For one thing, I had a Grandma and Grandpa who for most of the Christmases of my childhood, were dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus. My grandfather, a business executive and El Katif Shriner, cheered the children of The Shriners Childrens Hospital in Spokane all of December with his hearty laugh, smashing red velvet suit, reindeer bells, and thick white hair and twinkly eyes. He loved children, loved Christmas, and growing up a poor Scotsman, felt the very best gift was to cheer up ill children with a hug and toy. My grandmother stood at his side handing out smiles and the presents she wrapped nightly.

Christmas morning spent with my grandparents meant "Santa" would appear at the front door jangling his bells in his amazing Santa suit just for us, his grandkids, home for a week from wherever we were in our lives as a military family. My mother, one of the sick children herself the year she was seven with rheumatic fever, spent a year in isolation in a children's hospital. She both loved her father for his generous spirit (perhaps born of cheering her up in the hospital as a child) and pained by memories of the loneliness and isolation the holidays symbolized for her: separation at a time dedicated to family. Christmas also became the one acknowledged armistice in the conflicted relationship between my parents. Whatever sorrows, arguments or disappointments the year might contain, Christmas marked a time my family came together. My mother, an ice skater, built homemade rinks in our wintry back yards. There were trips to the mountains to hike through the snow and find our tree. There were lights and presents even when the money was tight; sledding, cocoa, and snowmen in the front yard. Christmas Eve was the one night it was okay to fall asleep under the tree, looking upwards at the beauty of the lights waiting for magical Santa. The one night God seemed real and close, an expression of peace and love.

After blending both Jewish and Christian traditions together in my own adult life, I discovered that, like my mother, I have a complicated adult relationship with the holiday now. When my husband Ken was ill with cancer and went into surgery on Christmas Eve of 2002, I sat the night beside him after that failed operation watching televised celebrations from the Vatican, marooned in the cold indifferent rhythms of the hospital and the disconnected attitude of the shift nurse on our floor. The night resonated with the utter absence of God. Where was the magic? The sacred? Simple compassion of the human kind? I held my husband's head as he retched uncontrollably, feeling like one of the lost souls my grandfather might have cheered, not the girl who loved and found solace, always, in this one exquisite night of the year.

Those moments gild the day with a particular melancholy. A poignancy in which the beauty of Christmas subtly marks the prelude to feelings of real loss.

Life goes on. My family and I make holiday cookies, decorate a tree with ornaments and vintage decorations that hold memories of people and places and times past. There is a "Just Married" ornament with Ken; a pewter engraved book celebrating my first published novel; framed pictures of the kids; glass ornaments from Germany my uncle bought my grandparents during the Korean War; a hand-painted ornament with my mom's and my name on it the year I turned one; the Christmas stocking my grandma made me of hand-stitched velvet and sequins, the stockings I made everyone in the family after that. My daughter's stocking from her Godmother and the quilting club that is 4 feet long. School ornaments from the kids' colleges, travel mementos gathered with my second husband, Greg; the dog and ski and music and Barbie collections. The album of my life is on that tree. I tell my life in Christmases.

Christmas isn't a religious holiday or a festive month on the calendar for me: the season signifies a willful decision to create joy, when the human need to love reaches across disappointment and misfortune. Christmas is my grandfather with a sick child in a hospital johnnie on his knee holding in his hand a new toy. It is my parents pulling something happy together. Christmas is the time of year, for me, when people try a little harder and often succeed at making the world a better place. Snowflakes and glowing lights, mystery packages and sweets. When we battle the darkness with as much light as we can muster.

So as James Taylor sings his particularly melancholy "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in my study as I write this, I smile. Yes, it is a world of chipped edges and tattered corners. But life is also beautiful in its capacity to reflect the best we give it.

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