Missing the Magical, Longing for the Actual

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When I was a very little girl, Christmas was full and magical. It began with learning our parts for the Christmas Eve program at church. For weeks we would rehearse our lines, “and there were shepherds in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night,” and our songs, “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.”

Mrs. Hollenbeck would herd us into the sanctuary, organize us on the steps of the chancel, and direct us to speak more loudly, “so they could hear us in the back.”

Then, on Christmas Eve, donned in our Christmas best, hair combed and inspected by our mother, my brothers, sister, and I would pile into the car and head to the church.

The place would be crawling with people decked out in their finest — all the men in suits, the ladies with lipstick and stockings and heels. We children would be corralled in the basement, lined up, and given last minute instructions before processing up the stairs, into the sanctuary, and down the aisle to the front of the church. Our families beamed at us as we sang and told the Christmas story of stars and shepherds and sheep and a swaddled baby.

After every line had been said and “Silent Night” had been sung (with the last verse a cappella, of course) we would recess down the aisle to the back of the church where the ushers waited with brown lunch bags filled with roasted peanuts, a fresh Florida orange, and several pieces of candy.

Bundled up in our coats and hats and hugging our precious loot, we were transported home, where we were snuggled into our beds, said our prayers. and went to sleep in anticipation of more magic on Christmas morning.

When we woke, we would rush to the tree to find piles of presents, then before we knew it, we were dressed and loaded back into the car for the drive to my grandparents.

After an hour of watching the familiar landscape and ticking off all the familiar milestones, I would bolt from the back seat and run to the door where my grandpa was waiting with a huge smile and open arms. Right past him, in the kitchen, was my grandmother in a dress and heels, a Christmas apron tied around her waist. She was smiling, too, and ready for her hug, even if she had been up since before dawn making a Christmas feast and setting tables with linen, candles, china, and silver.

The food was the stuff of legends — roasted lamb, beef, ham, and/or turkey, homemade rolls, mashed potatoes with gravy, dressing, salads, and sides, all served family style and passed round the table from person to person. Just when you thought you couldn’t eat one more bite, grandma brought out pie and coffee, even though we’d been nibbling all day on sumptuous Christmas cookies that had been placed among the decorations throughout the house.

Full beyond full, we would roll into the living room and gather around the rotating tree that sat in a musical tree stand brought from Germany who knows when. More than 20 of us — the extended family and any additional guests that Grandpa had invited to join us for the day — received gifts selected individually and with care.

After all the packages were opened and all the paper tossed away, we children ran off to play in the basement, the men moved to the den to watch the football game, and the women assembled in the kitchen to pack up leftovers and tend to a mountain of dishes. Grandma would stand at the sink and wash, the rest stood close by, towels in hand, chatting as they wiped and carefully stacked each dish.

Then magically, just as the sun was starting to set and the kids were starting to bicker, the food would reappear again. Leftover potatoes were transformed into potato pancakes and drizzled with gravy. Meats would be warmed and salads set out, and we would eat — impossibly — again.

Then, full of food and joy and love, we would stand in line to each receive a signature grandpa handshake and loads and loads of hugs before we were piled once again into the car for the ride home. I remember pressing my cheek against the car window, gazing out at the stars, and feeling my dad reach his hand around the seat to pat me on the leg.

Of course, that was a million years ago, and certainly, not all of my Christmases since then have been so magical. Some have been disappointing like the time we excitedly drove from Missouri to Michigan for three family Christmases and then drove back, all five of us sick with the stomach flu. Others have been thick with the heartache of family brokenness — loved ones sitting in the same room unable or unwilling to speak to each other, leaving early or angry or both. In fact, even the Christmases at my grandparents’ house that I remember so fondly often ended with my dad carrying me to the car as I cried tears of fatigue and frustration.

This year, as our grown children are far-flung across the country and our parents are close enough to drive to but too dear to risk the chance of a Covid infection, we have made the choice to follow the CDC’s recommendation to not travel, to not visit, to stay at home, and stay safe.

We won’t have a Christmas Eve program at the church. We’ll stream a pre-recorded worship service on our television as we sit together on our couch. Sure, we might sing “Joy to the World,” but we won’t hear the voices of the family sitting behind us or stand in the sanctuary chatting and laughing afterward with our friends and their children who’ve all gathered for the annual celebration.

Our people will open the presents that have been delivered by the United States Postal Service in the safety of their own homes, not sitting near our tree. We’ll likely Zoom and chat for a while, but we won’t have hugs or secret handshakes or extra cups of coffee and pieces of pie. We won’t pile into the living room together to watch a movie, or hockey, or football. We won’t sit around a puzzle or pour over old pictures or play Scrabble or banana-grams or Uno.

Our little house by the river won’t be crowded by people piled on top of each other and taking turns with one little bathroom. We won’t share homemade cinnamon rolls or a roasted turkey (although you know I’m going to make one), and we won’t hear the laughter as our granddaughters run through our house in their flouncy nightgowns.

We won’t see our parents or our siblings or our nieces and nephews — we won’t get a classic photo on my mom’s couch or gather with my in-laws at a Bob Evans. I won’t hug my godmother and godfather; in fact, now that they are living in separate nursing homes, they won’t be able to hug one other either.

I know we’ve made the right choice, but as December 25th gets closer, I am feeling nostalgic and fighting melancholy. I so long to be with the people we love — to hear familiar voices, smell familiar smells — to share space and time with those we love the most, even if it’s not magical, or memorable, or perfect, or impressive.

But we can’t. Not this year.

So, I’m going to schedule some Zoom meetings, put a turkey in the oven, turn on some Christmas music, and start a new puzzle. It won’t be what I’m longing for, but it’ll have to do until it’s safe to travel the miles, to meet fact to face, to embrace one another, to share the couch and a meal and some laughs.

And once we do get to share physical space again, I think I am going to view it differently. I don’t think I’ll care if it’s magical; I think I’ll simply be grateful — so, so grateful — for our gathering to be actual.

May the Lord watch between us while we are apart from one another.

Genesis 31:49

2 thoughts on “Missing the Magical, Longing for the Actual

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