The Ghost of Christmas Present
I love everything about Christmas.
I love the music. I love finding and wrapping gifts that I know the recipients will like. I love addressing cards and putting them in the mail. I love making (and eating) cookies, and going to holiday parties, and watching the old stop-motion specials on television. I like terrible holiday sweaters and eggnog and decorating the tree. While others find Christmas a time of stress and anxiety, for me it’s probably the one time of the year I am most relaxed.
Not this year. At least not yet. December has only been around for a couple of days, so there’s time, but something definitely feels a little off. Normally by now I’m playing Christmas songs and watching Hallmark movies about young newspaper reporters who get sent to small towns to cover the imminent shutdown of the gingerbread factory and find themselves falling in love with the guy who runs the Christmas tree farm. So far, all I’ve done is put up the tree. Even that was a monumental effort. Scheduled to go up the first weekend in November, it stood in the living room for three weeks before I hung a single ornament, and I only did that because we had company coming for Thanksgiving and I was embarrassed to have them looking at a naked tree.
I have managed to get and wrap all of this year’s presents. And cards will go out next week. But still, something is missing, and I can’t quite figure out what it is. Yesterday temperatures dropped enough so that the yard was covered with a wintry rime of frost. When I took the dogs out, I stood in the dark, watching the lights twinkle on our neighbors’ houses, and felt like I was standing on the set of a holiday movie. But while the scenery was perfect, there was no script to go with it. No story.
When I was a kid, the holiday season began with the arrival of the Sears Wish Book, the annual catalog filled with hundreds of pages of items for every member of the family. When it arrived, I’d sit in an armchair in the living room and pore over the pages, dogearing the corners when I found something I wanted. I almost never actually got anything from the catalog, but I loved looking at it.
What I remember most, though, is how it smelled. The Sears Wish Book had a very distinctive scent, a combination of ink and paper that was unique to it. That, and not the scent of fresh pine or baking cookies, is what I most associated with the season. And standing in the yard yesterday, that’s what I found myself missing. Not the actual scent of the catalog, but the way it made me feel, like magic was all around and any wish could come true.
This is, of course, an unusual year. The stress of the pandemic—financial, social, physical—continues. This is also the first Christmas season without my sister Nancy, who loved it as much as I do. Even so, there’s a lot to be happy about: a much-loved partner, a wonderful home in a welcoming and endlessly entertaining community, dogs who are still healthy despite their advancing age, enough work to see me through the next year. On paper this should be a joyous time.
And I’m not unhappy. I’m just not…jolly, I guess. And I think there are a lot of us feeling this way right now. For no reason in particular, we’re just a little blue. Maybe a lot blue. Maybe some of us are even more down than that but are trying to pretend we’re okay because we don’t know what else to do.
Today, tired of fighting the feeling, I gave into it. I put on one of my favorite holiday albums, Over the Rhine’s Snow Angels. Steeped in melancholy, it perfectly captures the complicated feelings many of us have about the holidays. As it played, I sat and looked out the window at the grey, overcast sky. Inside, the lights of the tree glimmered warmly. Beside me, one of the dogs lay burrowed in a nest of fleece blankets, while the other chased her favorite ball around the room. In the other room, Cubby talked happily with his friend over the phone while they played a game together online.
Sitting there, I thought back to those days spent on the couch, looking through the Wish Book and dreaming about the perfect Christmas. My list is different now than it was then, and almost everything on it has been crossed off. If this year doesn’t feel quite as merry and bright, maybe it doesn’t need to be. Maybe it’s enough to just be here.
For anyone else feeling not-quite-merry this holiday season, you’re not alone. And it’s okay. As the song says, we’ll muddle through somehow. ▼
Michael Thomas Ford is a much-published Lambda Literary award-winning author. Visit Michael at michaelthomasford.com
Photo by Mourad Saadi on Unsplash