The Christmas lights glowing in the rain do not look like Christmas lights to me. They look old and hazy and out-of-place and oddly out of time. I feel as though I have suddenly been thrust into the middle of March and people have forgotten to take down their Christmas decorations.
It doesn’t seem much like Christmas this year. In the December rain, the Christmas lights look more forlorn than festive… just another reminder that the magic of Christmas is missing this year. I wonder where it went.
The magic memories of Christmas that most of us treasure are unique to each f us. Looking back, things have a way of looking better than they really were. Everything in the present is colored by everything else going on in the present – our daily lives can be busy and complicated. It seems odd that we really can’t get a true picture of things until we can stop somewhere in the future and look back. Then when we do, we still don’t get a true picture. We get memories colored by time – memories that look better than the real memories. Much better than they did when the memories were freshly painted in our minds.
Tonight, though, I’m living in the present and walking through a particularly nasty December rain. It is the kind of night that could chill your soul in the middle of July if you dare to remember it. Maybe sometime, next summer, I’ll look back on this night and it won’t seem so – not as bad as it really was.
Memory is such a charming flirt.
The rain is somewhere in between ice, snow, and rain. It’s just cold enough that ice is mixing in but not cold enough to turn to snow and color the landscape with Christmas white.
The normally quiet neighborhoods in my little town are even quieter on this night. The only sound is the ice pellets and raindrops pounding on the hood of my not-quite-warm-enough rain jacket.
I walk past the rows of houses decorated for Christmas, but they look odd in the rain and fog. The white, green, red, and blue lights don’t twinkle with their normal festive happiness. Instead, they glower like worried warning beacons. I feel uneasy and restive, but I walk on, cold, and uncomfortable.
I’m miles away from my home and even further away in my thoughts. I walk alone on a bleak and dreary December night. It’s Christmastime and I cannot find the magic of Christmas anywhere. How do I find the magic of Christmas? Where do I look? Is there anyone who can tell me how to find it? Someone who knows the secret. Is there a “Handbook of Christmas Magic” that I can read that would help me find it?
I feel lost like the scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz”, who set out on a long, perilous journey to look for something he already had. Memories are strange and fragile things. Like delicate crystals, they can be altered and changed so easily. They can be tearfully beautiful, or they can be dreadfully painful. They can be as good as you want them or as bad as you make them.
The rain is more ice than rain now, the Christmas lights seem almost haunting as I pass them. I’m feeling particularly vulnerable and unusually cold tonight.
I walk on despite my discomfort and increasingly dark mood. What a shame it is, I think, that I can’t feel Christmas. The Christmas lights and decorations add to the gloom instead of brightening my spirits as they should. They seem almost mocking as they try to twinkle in the hazy gloom. It is a wet and cruel night.
I see a little neighborhood mom and pop store appear like a ghost in the night. I have been so lost in thought that I did not realize I had wandered this far from my home. The little store looks invitingly warm and cozy as I (and my shivering soul) approach it. I think perhaps I will stop in and buy a newspaper to read when I finally get home, but I did not fool myself – I want to go in because the store looks inviting, warm, and dry. And perhaps because I think a kind “hello” from the clerk inside might help jostle me from the dark and sad mood I’m in.
I walk in and the store smells old-fashioned and good. There is some pine-roping hanging from the counter and big, old-fashioned, Christmas lights decorating the coolers and the area behind the counter. It looks like decade-old ornaments and lights that had been dragged out of the same leaky attic for a Christmas respite – and then put back in that same musty place every January.
Nostalgia is such an odd cocktail of feelings.
The coffee smells good and it looks hot. I pour a cup and pretend to look through the magazines and newspapers. I’m standing there trying to decide exactly what I’m feeling. when I hear the door jangle and watch a young girl about six or seven walks in with her mother. The little girl has long, curly, strawberry-blonde hair, and she’s wearing a bright green coat with a big Santa Claus pin on it. It’s one of the kinds that lights up when you touch it. She kept touching it and it kept lighting up. Every time she touched it lit up and said “Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!” in a tinny, computer-generated, voice. I thought that would be annoying if you had to listen to it all day, every day. But tonight, I find it comforting and happy.
I watch the little girl and her mom while pretending to peruse the periodicals. They came in to buy candy canes for their Christmas tree. I find it precious that they are going to put real candy canes on their Christmas tree. I’m so sick of the department-store-look-designer-trees these days, I find this so refreshing. I wonder if they pop popcorn and make a garland out of popcorn and cranberries and thread. I am tempted to ask them but think better of it. You know how paranoid the world is these days.
I pick up a newspaper and appear to scan the headlines. I can hear the tinny Santa “Ho, Ho, Ho-ing” away as the mom selects several boxes of red and white (that’s the only real kind) of candy canes. The little girl’s eyes are wide and full of wonder as only a child’s eyes can be. I melt as I watch. I needed a good melting as cold as I am inside.
Mom pays for the candy canes. The clerk bags them and hands the bag to the little girl. She practically lights up the little store with her one-tooth-missing smile. Just for a moment I am back in school and feel an unfamiliar rush of joy. I am walking down the street of my little town holding my grandfather’s hand. We’re going to see Santa Claus. “The real one”, my grandpa reminds me.
I walk up to the counter just as the clerk hands the bag of real candy canes to the little girl, and stand behind them, waiting to pay for the newspaper. The mom and little girl turn to leave, and the little girl looks up at me with her beautiful brown eyes and says, “Merry Christmas” with a smile so warm and real it reached in and took hold of my heart. I smile back and say, “Merry Christmas to you too!”. The mom smiled at me, took the little girl’s hand, and disappeared out the door.
I pay for my newspaper, still reeling from the unexpected assault on my emotions, and walk out into the night. The icy mixture of rain and sleet had turned into the most beautiful kind of snow — big, fluffy flakes that take forever to fall from the sky to the ground. A little miracle, I think to myself, as I head home on the suddenly beautiful winter night.
Suddenly I feel the magic of Christmas that has evaded me so long this year. The magic of Christmas has nothing to do with decorations, lights, presents, Christmas trees, or anything so material. It has everything to do with a little girl’s smile and a mom who bought candy canes. I begin to think of Dickens and a favorite passage from “A Christmas Carol”:
“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,’ faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself. ‘Business!’ cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. ‘Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!’ [“A Christmas Carol” – Charles Dickens]
How wonderfully perfect it is that in the captivating smile of a little girl I find my Christmas Magic. Her grace and innocence remind me, once again, that Christmas is more a matter of spirit than anything material. In the love of a mother for her child I find Christmas Magic, and more than that, I rediscovered the meaning of Christmas.
Charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, and love are all part of the magic of Christmas; but love is the greatest of these. In that little store, I saw the love of a mother and child share – that is the spirit of Christmas.
The snowflakes, big and perfect, fall gently from the dark, winter sky. I pass house after house decorated for Christmas – the lights sparkling and bright and looking exactly as they should. As I pass by, I can feel the love of the families inside, warm, safe, and dry.
Another little miracle happened to me tonight. I witnessed memories being made. I saw perfect love in a child’s smile and the spirit of Christmas pass between a mother and her child. In that instant, I found the magic of Christmas inside my heart where it has always been – and where it will always be as long as I live.
The gifts we give that matter most are the ones that cannot be bought or sold. The love we share and the memories we leave behind are the greatest gifts we can give.
And they are the only gifts that last a lifetime.