This Christmas was life-changing, although it included all the normal elements of the usual celebration.
We always waited until after Thanksgiving to start talking Christmas. After all, Thanksgiving was a worthy holiday in its own rite, even though there weren't too many commercials on TV about it (except for maybe the sale on turkeys at the grocery store). Usually after we'd feasted, we started pulling out the boxes of ornaments, stockings, garlands, and candles. We might set up the Advent wreath and keep time like we did at church.
Usually around the same time, a Christmas list from each family member began to circulate. What did he want? What did she need? Most of my family members put books and/or music on their list, with the occasional addition of some other random jewel or cosmetic or sock (gold toe, please). We mostly shopped to the list. My mom was the only one who felt the liberty to ad-lib -- usually when it came to the stocking, so as to provide us with essentials such as chocolate oranges.
The best parts of the Christmas tradition are the days leading up to the day itself. I love the nights wrapping gifts with my Sister up in our shared rooms -- no matter how small the room, we always found the space to cram tubes of paper, tape, shared scissors, ribbon galore, and the humble stack of gifts we'd each selected for immediate family and a few close friends.
I love the sight of lights through the neighborhood. I can't remember a year since I achieved adulthood that I haven't gone walking or driving down a secret detour after dark to admire the brightest Christmas creativity of the neighborhood. Our house has always opted for a few sprinkles of lights. Many of the neighbors told a much more elaborate story with their electric bills. I love both styles, just soaking in the sights, feasting my eyes on the sparkling delight bursting through the darkness of Winter.
And the smells of Christmas! Cookies baking, cinnamon candles burning, rum cutting the egg nog -- every smell rich and delicious and nose-tickling.
Not to mention the sounds. Many people I know profess to hate Christmas music. I can't deny a craving for the silly crooning of Frank Sinatra or Elvis, the velvety holiday cheer of Ella Fitzgerald, and the traditional glory of the London Philharmonic performing Handel's Messiah. In recent years I've discovered a new and edgier delight: Sarah McLachlan's Christmas album.
Morning of Christmas there have always been gifts. We didn't ever pile them to the rooftops the way it seemed to happen at some other homes I knew of, but we had plenty. We took turns opening in order of age: with patience, we each watched as one family member opened their gifts individually. First my dad opened one; then my mom; then each of us kids in order of age. One gift at a time, distributed by our brother elf (whose turn was always last, and now he's taller than I am!). This way we savored it and shared in our family member's delight for the perfect gift -- the wish list fulfillment.
But this year, we awakened, turned down the covers, and adjourned to the kitchen for freshly brewed coffee. Something was strange about the morning, as we approached the Christmas tree and saw just one gift per person. We were all surprised, but accepted it mutely, and took our places for the gift circle. It would be brief, obviously.
My Dad opened his and found a book. It was thick and full of only the Right Answers, on any topic.
My Mom found a calendar, all filled in, for the coming year. It had all the important dates and just the right amount of time portioned to spend with all the people she loved. It was touch sensitive, and she could expand certain dates to fit more hours.
My Sister found a velvet bag filled with small, flat glass stones, like squashed marbles. The little folded accordion page explained that they could be used for trading, or turned into jewels, or a game, or decor. Anything she needed for her family, they would become at a moments notice.
My Brother received something that to me looked like it was empty. I couldn't see inside the box no matter how hard I tried. But he looked so excited and everyone cooed over how perfect it was for him.
I opened my box, and found inside it something that I already have: my laptop. Not a laptop. It was my laptop. I turned it over. It had a few discolorations on the bottom, and the same little apple on top. Mine. Nothing new. Just what I've already given myself.
And then I woke up. It wasn't Christmas yet, I'd only been dreaming. It made the most sense since everyone seemed to under-react about all the gifts we'd purchased each other going missing from beneath the tree. No one remarked that my Sister had been there without her husband or her baby, although they were certainly understood to be in existence. The whole air of the gift circle had been remarkably dream-like, and now I knew why. Well, it was a dream.
In my dreams, I receive one thing that I already own. I imagine what I need most. I write a list, and I distribute it, and then on the day when I receive a thing I'm to treasure all year, I receive something I already have.