When I was a little girl, I loved Christmas.
In the middle of the hot Oklahoma summer, I played Christmas carols on my little record player. I hoarded the December issues of Woman’s Day and Family Circle magazines, committing to memory the instructions for making decorations from cardboard tubes and colored paper,( crafting in the 70’s was much less sophisticated than it is today! ) and wishing I was old enough to bake any of the dozens of cookie recipes they contained. One year, I wrapped the legs of the tea-party table with paper and drew a fireplace to hang “stockings” from. (Note to my mother – this was BEFORE we moved to a house with a fireplace. I thought I needed one!)
Mom did a lot of eye-rolling.
Presents from Santa were a part of the fascination, as they would be for any child, but they really weren’t the main reason for my near-obsession. No, what I loved most about the holiday was the magic. The feeling of wonder and anticipation that filled my heart when the weather turned colder and cinnamon and pine scented the air. Candlelight and carols, boxes and bows. I lived for Christmas.
I don’t remember when or how I stopped believing in Santa, but I think I was 12 before I gave up hoping. For many kids, I think the spirit starts to wane once the cat is out of the bag about Santa. Not for me. That was the first “adult” secret I was privy to, charged as a keeper of the myth, preparing to pass along one of our cultural touchstones to the next generation. No way I was going to steal the magic from another child the way the boys at school did when they laughed at the younger ones on the playground. (Note to my brother – I really thought you all ready knew!)
All through my school years, Christmas grew in my soul. The music we sang in choir, from that first awkward rendition of The Hallelujah Chorus in the seventh grade to the haunting candlelight cantata we did in high school, deepened the meaning of the season. My friends and I exchanged small gifts. A tiny tree sparkled on my bedside table.
Then came 20 years of retail.
At first I thought I could handle it. True, it is easier to keep the spirit alive when there are young children in the house, but the constant forced holiday cheer eventually wore me down. The decorations languished in their boxes, the cookies went unbaked. Christmas Eve ceased to be a night for church and dinner with friends and little ones in footed pajamas, and instead became a workday that began at 4:30 am,(often after spending 14 hours at the store the day before)and ended at 5pm. Collapsed in bed by 7. Hoping to be awake the next morning in time to set everything up before the kids came home from their father’s house.
One year, I found myself wrapping the last of their presents less than an hour before I expected them home. Huge, silent tears rolled down both cheeks. The magic was gone. It had slipped away like a dream does upon waking – the tighter you try to grasp it, the further it recedes, until you wonder if it ever was. I knew it had been real, and I mourned for it – and for the little girl who had loved it so fiercely.
It’s been three years since I last worked a Christmas shift. Recovery is slow, and not always sure. I’ve been waiting for the Christmas girl to come home. I get a glimpse of her every now and then, but she’s shy.
So I went looking for her.
I told John last summer that I wanted to come to France in early December to see it dressed for the holidays. We spend most of our vacation time in Paris, but always arrange a side-trip to somewhere new. When I read about the Fete de Noel, it had to be Strasbourg.
It could have been cheesy, or false, or a tourist-trap, and destroyed the last echoes of the Christmas girl. I was almost afraid to risk it.
It wasn’t cheesy, it was wonderful. There was music, and food and …magic. Children stare wide-eyed at Father Christmas when he asks if they’ve been good.The heady fragrance of mulled wine wafts down the street. Lights twinkle on rooftops and treetops.
She’s here somewhere, I know she is.
Maybe just around the next corner…