Twenty years ago, I had a black Christmas. It went beyond blue into uncharted territory of black. I’ve always loved Christmas with all its hope and beauty and joy – the lights, the snow, the ornaments. And yes, as a kid, I loved seeing that stack of gifts under the tree and eating sugar cookies for breakfast. We spent lots of time with extended family – grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and more cousins. At the traditional Christmas Eve gathering at my paternal grandparents’ house, my dad played Santa. Not with a furry red suit or anything, but he was the one who creatively distributed gifts to everyone in attendance and tried to make sense of my grandmother’s “secret codes” for gifts that went together. “1A, 1B, 2” meant you had to open the ones first, and in A and B order…and the two should be opened last. This was my childhood and my young adulthood.
In the summer of 1991, my dad died. He was 47. Somewhere between the mute shock and convulsive sobbing of the days that followed, someone – I think my cousin Trish – asked, “Who’s going to be Santa at Christmas?” Thinking about it made me sad, but also made me smile. Dad was good at Christmas Spirit. It just “was” with him. Maybe he had an inner Buddy the Elf before Buddy even existed.
But I couldn’t even wrap my head around Christmas. I was numb head to toe.
Most of the months that followed blur in my memory. Maybe that’s a kind of mercy. I do remember shopping at the mall with my friend Mark, and noting that Len Deighton’s novel Spy Sinker had finally been released, I said, “Oh, perfect! My dad has Spy Hook and Spy Line! I can get him this one…”
And then I remembered.
Eventually, I noticed it was December 18th. And I hadn’t yet put up a tree. I knew I wouldn’t go home for Christmas; I had to work. But I just couldn’t work up the enthusiasm to put up a tree…not even the two-foot, flat-backed one that hangs on the wall.
On Christmas Eve, I called my grandparents’ house, where I knew everyone would be. I figured the five-course dinner was over and anyone over the age of 13 would have a towel in hand, drying dishes and pots and pans.
I heard conversation and laughter in the background. I chatted with as many people as I could. We exchanged “I love yous” and I hung up, deafened by the silence of my apartment. Grief pulled up a chair and made itself comfortable. So did Loneliness.
I dug out the two-foot tree, wrapped it in little white lights, decorated it with marble-sized apples and silver music notes, and hung it on the wall right above my stereo. Then I put in a cassette of Ray Conniff Christmas music.
Sad took a back seat to Happy for a little while. Looking at the tree, I laid down on the sofa. Tears came, as I knew they would. There were too many people to miss this year. I fell asleep and woke Christmas morning. It felt like just another day.
I took down the tree and put it back in the closet. Up and down in less than 12 hours. But I’d made the effort.
Christmas came later, when Mark’s family set a place for me at their table, and friends came over. The best gift I received that black Christmas was laughter, and the first step on the long road to recovery. Somewhere inside that laughter – though I didn’t realize it at the time – was the true meaning of Christmas.
Twenty years later, Christmas has changed. I’m not 22 anymore, or 12 for that matter. I am a softy when it comes to Christmas. “O Holy Night” and “I’ll be Home for Christmas” make me teary. I bake the same cookies I ate by the ton in my youth, plus a few new varieties. I try to give my children the most memorable Christmases I can, and I never fail to tell friends and family I love them. But it doesn’t mean there isn’t a little pain underneath – a little bit of missing the people who aren’t here.
Whatever your denomination, hope still matters. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Yule, or look at December as a running start into the new year…hope still matters. So if you know someone who is hurting, a hand of friendship, a cup of coffee, a place at the table, or companionable silence could make all the difference.
Dedicated to Laurie, Jan, Mark, Richard, John, Laurel, Holly, Christian, Roark, Denise, and everyone else who helped me through Christmas 1991.