If I were to describe to you Christmas, by which I mean the Christmas, the one that serves as a Platonic model for all future Christmases, I would be referring to the one when I was about 8 years old in my hometown of London, Ontario. My storyline isn’t entirely fluid, I could have been 7 or I could have been 9 and they all centre around Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day, but when I think back on that time its degree of specialness still immediately leaps out at me.
This was the last Christmas my parents were together. I see us now as tiny fixtures in a snow globe, preserved in that moment under a sea of swirling miniature snowflakes, about to be shaken up by real life but protected in the meantime by a thin layer of protective glass. Despite never having an excess amount of money, my mom and dad were wonderful at making the ordinary (to some) extraordinary and were especially adept at making these occurrences a surprise.
I remember that Christmas Eve because my mom got my sister and I dressed up, I’m sure there are pictures somewhere, and we set off on our adventure suspecting that something terrific was about to happen. I think we might have had lunch somewhere, I can’t remember this part, but our surprise was seeing A Christmas Carol at the Grand Theatre. I was in awe of the production, entirely transfixed by the story and the costumes. I was afraid of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, covering my eyes and sinking into my seat as the ominous faceless and hooded figure loomed over the stage. I know that its black robes looked like fine, crinkled tissue paper, a black hole where its head should have been.
I know we went ice skating in Victoria Park and I can remember the snow falling lazily as though in a Christmas card. My dad could skate like his feet had become a singular entity with the ice, years of competitive hockey and backyard ice rinks in Stratford, Ontario practically guaranteed a natural on skates. Skating backward, fluidly and with confidence, my dad would hold my hands and pull me forwards through the crowds of skaters. These were moments when I trusted him without thinking, the exhilaration of being allowed to experience movement like that was incredible. The park grand stand was covered with lights that blurred together as we carved figure eights into the ice, darting in and out and under amongst our fellow skaters.
London, Ontario is a very Victorian town, the entire downtown core is made up of old brick buildings that look as though they were made to be decorated for Christmas. This was before icicle lights, blinking lights, and any other lights other than the solid colourful or white lights that were pulled out of storage once a year to adorn eaves, bushes, and porches. We went to a family friend’s house after the skating, walking over after the skating had finished up. I remember my sister and I ate pancakes for dinner, I think the adults probably had something else, and we watched Christmas specials on the small TV. When we finally came home that night I was filled with the happiest sense of being truly tired. The smell of snow coming in from the car eclipsed suddenly by the smell of a live Christmas tree, its soft lights looking blurred and safe as we passed by on the way to bed.
I don’t know what I got that year for Christmas. I don’t remember Christmas day. I don’t even remember the correct order of events on that Christmas Eve. I’m not even sure of the year this all happened. But as I get older, and as each December arrives and it feels more and more difficult to really get into the Christmas spirit, I try to think back on that one day that feels absolutely perfect to me. So much of my time is spent on things I could have done differently, or regrets I have, and this is one day that is still shiny and untarnished for me. I’ve drawn on these memories many times as an adult, especially since moving across the country, which is something that has hindered the physical traditions I love so much about Christmas and family. I miss Christmas Eve with my dad and step-family dearly, it’s not the same using Skype to open presents together. And it isn’t the same using it to talk to my family after Christmas dinner. I can’t sit with my grandma and talk or have one of my Uncle Howard’s famous Caesar’s through a computer. It isn’t as though I don’t realize the reality of change or the fun of new traditions, its just that nostalgia is difficult to suppress, especially at a time of year so loaded with memories.
There are other Christmases, earlier than that, that serve as soft glowing beacons of happiness in my memories, fuzzy with age around the edges but acknowledged with fondness and importance nonetheless. I can remember the one when my parents built me a little wooden hobby kitchen, the stove burners carefully painted on in a spiral and the small chef’s hat my mom sewed for me. Or Buttons, the surprise black cat that I had wished for with a penny in a mall fountain, who just happened to show up Christmas morning on our front porch. Each of these backwards glimpses are what I think about on days when comfort seems fully out of reach, thinking of being loved and loving completely without question is more reassuring than anything else I can think of.