A Different Sort of Christmas Miracle
Christmas morning was an emotional mine field for me when I was a kid and yet it also held within it a miracle.
Dad was one of those hands-off fathers that were a signature of the 60s. It's true that I knew plenty of fathers who engaged with their kids, took them places, and just hung out. So, maybe Dad's remoteness couldn't entirely lie at the feet of "the times." He was a troubled soul, no doubt. An introvert who bordered on the reclusive. We were rarely in Dad's immediate presence unless it was at the dinner table or driving in the car. I do not remember hugs or even pats on the head. I do remember the bad moods when an even a wider berth was required. He was that elusive that when he did interact with us, we drank it up eagerly, hopefully, giddily.
I know Dad loved us, my two brothers and me; I think he just didn't know what to do with young children. His own father was a distant and formidable workaholic who was rarely home - a particularly bitter pill to swallow for an adoptee. All of which meant, in a nutshell, that 364.5 days of the year, we lived in emotional and literal isolation from Dad. It's the .5 part of the year, Christmas morning, and the week or so previous to it, that offered a kind of reprieve.
Dad loved Christmas. It was one of the few times of the year when he softened enough to bring us kids into focus. His excitement for the season was infectious. He joked around a lot, spent time with us outdoors, and particularly revelled in telling us childhood tales of Santa and his reindeer. Dad was a spellbinding storyteller with an eye for just the right details and a talent for mounting tension.
We spent every Christmas holiday, two whole weeks en famille, at The Farm. (My paternal grandparents purchased our beloved 300-acre property in the tiny hamlet of Holland Centre, Ontario in 1930). Tradition had us cutting down our own tree, one that Dad would have already scouted out. The five of us, plus Keady the dog, headed out on cross country skis. It would take a couple of hours or more by the time we'd trooped across acres of mostly wooded land, chopped down the chosen tree and headed back to the house, Dad towing the tree on the wood-slatted toboggan of our childhood. Before leaving on our adventure, Mom would have left a pot of homemade soup on simmer so by the time we returned, frozen stiff, we'd have something hot to eat. And Keady would take refuge by the fire chewing off the ice balls that had painfully gathered between her toes.
Christmas Eve was spent gathered in the living room, lights low, fire flames high and dancing in shadowed pantomimes, with pajama'd bodies under woolen blankets. Mom sipped at a glass of wine, Dad had his Scotch on the rocks and we got to drink hot chocolate with marshmallows. Talk of Christmas morning and speculating what Santa would bring kept us pretty wound up. Dad regaled us with his own childhood stories of Santa's magic.
Around 8:00, we'd pin our stockings on the fireplace mantle, lay out a glass of cold eggnog and a few shortbread cookies for Santa, and carrots for his reindeer, and head on up to bed. Dad was the one to tuck us in on Christmas Eve, further marking the season as special because, yes, it was the only night of the year he ever put us to bed. As he left our room, quietly pulling the door closed behind him, Dad would admonish, "Remember, Santa won't visit until you're all fast asleep." It didn't help - I was torn between staring, unblinkingly, out the window at the winter night sky watching for a glimpse of the lights on Santa's sleigh and wanting desperately to fall asleep to make sure Santa would come.
My brothers and I were allowed to sleep in one room on Christmas Eve. The two single beds were pushed together and I slept in the middle. By morning, I'd have slipped halfway down to the floor, the beds having given way to my weight and restless wiggling throughout the night. My older brother always woke well before the morning light and tiptoed down to the living room to scout out what Santa had brought us. He may also have been that kid who sought out his presents before Christmas, checking in dark closets and empty drawers.
We were allowed to open our stockings alone but the presents had to wait. Among small toys and comic books rolled up, chocolates and little games, Santa always stuck a clementine and unshelled walnut in the toe of each of our stockings. If we were lucky, our excited voices woke up Mom and Dad and they'd come down the stairs, all sleepy smiles and Merry Christmas! Mom would don her festive, bright red housecoat and slippers before hitting the kitchen, getting the coffee on to drip and then stick the coffee cake in the oven to warm up. Dad would get a fire going in the living room and light up his first cigarette of the day. We'd wait with the patience of Job for them to organize themselves enough that the present opening could commence.
This was when Dad would really light up. He was as excited as we were to see what was underneath the wrapping paper of our gifts.
"Whatcha got there, Dane? Let me see," he'd say smiling and animated.
"It's a Chatty Cathy doll!," I'd scream, no thought to containing my joy.
"Marvelous!" he'd declare, just like he knew what a treasure it was. If I was feeling emboldened, I'd take my bounty over to show him, let him pull the string. These were the rare, coveted times when I got up close to him; his enthusiasm tacit permission to approach. His coffee and cigarette breath and the warmth of his physical presence were intoxicating. Like a thirsty pilgrim, I wanted to drink it all in.
It didn't take long before all the presents were opened, the first pot of coffee drunk, the cake reduced to crumbs on the plate. My brothers and I would find a corner in which to gather our new loot and, in the calm aftermath of the gifting frenzy, we'd settle in to really explore them.
It was usually in this time of quiet play, the hype of the morning exhausted, that the switch in Dad would flip. Suddenly, he was grumbling, barking at us to clean up the mess. He'd grab a big green garbage bag and toss it in our direction. Immediately, as though the garbage collectors were waiting outside in the cold, we were to cram wrapping, bows and ribbons in the bag. We had to take our things up to our rooms and get the "clutter" out of the living room. Dad went about resetting the house to its pre-Christmas orderliness, tidying all the unruly piles of things, switching the radio station from Christmas carols to a news talk station or worse, the Queen's address, essentially declaring the end of the festivities, and the goodwill in which we partook for a few hours.
The usual Dad, the one we knew so well, the one who looked at us like he didn't know who we were, the one who always seemed to find us underfoot or too loud, or too boisterous, that dad was back. Once again, we were too much. You could almost see the retreat in his eyes, if you dared look that brazenly. Dad would fold back into himself and disappear.
For the rest of the day, we'd stay as quiet and invisible as we could. Eventually, the pressure of the silence and the disappointment in this turn of events would send us outside to play where we could put some distance between ourselves and the Dad who no longer saw us. Even though there was still a turkey feast to come, the joy, the ease, the delight of the season was gone, banished from our home by a man who was unable to sustain it for longer than half a day.
It would be easy for me as an adult to look back and feel only resentment, and there was a time that I did. Because this pattern repeated itself every December, I eventually learned to approach Christmas with both excitement and dread because I knew the roller coaster of emotional highs and lows so well.
But what if, instead of resentment, I chose to see the beauty in my childhood Christmas mornings? The beauty of witnessing my dad let go of whatever held him distant. The beauty of connecting with him as father and daughter even for a short time. The beauty of being seen by the most important man in my life.
Christmas is a time for miracles when extraordinary kindness and hope are manifested. However short-lived, even a glimpse of the depth of love Dad felt for us and that we could share with him feels like a miracle to me.
Merry Christmas! And may you experience your own moments of magic.