For as long as I can remember, Christmas has been my favorite holiday. As a kid, I loved the anticipation leading up to it. The blast of cold air, followed by the scent of pine, as my father brought the tree through the front door. Opening the doors on the Advent calendar and lighting the Advent candles. We also had a nativity set that I thought was beautiful. (Who knows how it would appear to my adult eyes.) On Christmas Day, baby Jesus appeared in the manger, which conformed to his body perfectly. It was magical.
Unfortunately, my father was still drinking back then and my mother was increasingly ill, so when Christmas actually came, it was often a disappointment. Even worse were the years my parents were broke and I got to listen to my friends talk about all the awesome gifts they got.
But then my father got sober and we all got some type of counseling and Christmas got a whole lot better.
Christmas was especially joyful when my siblings and I had grown into adults. At dinner, we somehow crammed seven adults at the dining room table and four kids at a card table. Then we enjoyed my mother’s delicious turkey dinner while discussing movies, books, and our jobs. You couldn’t ask for a better Christmas.
Then my father died.
The first Christmas he was gone, the family gathered at my brother’s house instead of my parents’. That was different. My mother hadn’t cooked the meal I enjoyed so much. Worst of all, my father was not at the head of the table, peppering the conversation with his typical dry comments and sharp observations.
After that, the family fragmented. My younger sister spent Christmas with her in-laws and my brother spent Christmas with his. My older sister and my mother would put together a little turkey dinner and invite a friend or two. Some years my husband and I joined them. Other years, most of us managed to show up at my brother’s house. And while all of those Christmases were very nice, they weren’t the noisy, chaotic, laughter-filled times that I remembered. They couldn’t be.
I had no idea how deeply we needed my father to function as a family until he was gone. He was a stabilizing influence, which is funny when you consider how badly he wrecked our lives when he was drinking. Without him, things felt shaky and uncertain; the family was falling apart and couldn’t be put back together. My mother, in particular, seemed lost. We all tried to help her but obviously we couldn’t do the one thing she would have wanted most, which was to bring him back.
For me, Christmas has lost its magic. I’ve held on to what I can: my husband and I put up a tree and I spend many hours admiring its sparkling magnificence. I also have over 100 Christmas songs in my music collection. Listening to them always lifts my mood. Christmas songs are cheerful and hopeful — two words that no one would ever use to describe me.
Inevitably, I play A Charlie Brown Christmas and let in the ghost of Christmases past. I look at the photo of my sister and me dancing. Outside the frame, my father is sitting on the couch and in a departure from his normally stoic self, he joins in as he waves his arms in the air.
Merry Christmas, Dad. We miss you.