Santa does not travel from one house to the next over the course of an evening. Christmas comes in a moment. Deep in the night of Christmas Eve, there comes an instant – and just an instant – when the restlessness stops and all is still. Perceptive night nurses in hospitals know this moment. Lonely third shift desk clerks in third-class city hotels know this moment. Old steam firemen snug in the warm bowels of power plants can tell you exactly when it is. In a flash, Christmas arrives for children, even if they are sound asleep. It is in this instant that Santa comes and goes. Some very sensitive children awake at that moment – but not because they hear something, for there is nothing to hear. They awake with the feeling that something has happened. If they get up, their parents tell them to go back to sleep. But, of course, they cannot. Something has happened, and from that moment it is Christmas.
Christmas happens to adults, too, in that instant, but they are not as open to magic as children are and it often takes them a long time to realize it, to get to Christmas. Sometimes it takes many years and much distance, but other times it takes just the time it took three rich travelers to come from the East to Bethlehem. Those travelers were called “magi,” and it is from this root that we actually get our word “magic.” But this is a part of the Christmas story that most have forgotten, so I need to start from the beginning.
There is a long tradition that the three magi differed in many ways, but the primary difference was in their ages. Art from long ago makes this very clear; artists from Fra Angelico to Rubens all painted the “Adoration of the Magi;” always the kings are portrayed as of different ages: young, middle-aged and old. According to the apocryphal legends, the oldest was Melchior, Balthazar was in the middle, and the youngest magus was Caspar. There is actually some disagreement about this, but it does not matter. And, of course, they brought gifts. The oldest brought gold, the youngest brought frankincense, and the middle-aged magi brought myrrh. They were men who looked outside of the everyday world for their answers; they looked to the stars, they consulted their dreams. A star told them where to find the king of the Jews, and off they went. Who would do such a thing? Of course, they were human and therefore not perfect; they made the mistake of asking King Herod for directions. Herod, immediately on his guard, asked them to come back and tell him where the king was so that he could worship him too. But Herod worshipped no one but Herod, and the magi were warned in another dream not to tell him where the child was. This did not stop Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem, and one wonders if the magi realized that in coming to worship one child, they had condemned many others. But even if they were not aware, they were wise men and must have known that unintended consequences are a part of life.
According to tradition, the magi arrived twelve days after the birth of Jesus; the twelfth day after Christmas is called the Epiphany, the day of arrival at the holy manger. So, there was a delay between the appearance of the light and the time it took to take the long journey and arrive in Bethlehem. And so it takes many adults some time to get to the magic of Christmas, to get to the Epiphany. Some never get there, and some do not recognize it when they do arrive. In some countries, and in some denominations, the epiphany is still celebrated. There, it is more likely that someone will awake and realize that the kings have come. In other countries, like America, Christmas is over by the twelfth night. Presents were opened long ago, the Christmas tree is on the curb and the ornaments are back in the attic. No one notices the day that the kings arrive following the star, and, if they are stirred by something in the depth of the night, they think it is perhaps a result of worry over the Christmas bills which have already begun to arrive. The gifts of the kings are often overlooked – or examined briefly in the morning as one does a vivid pre-dawn dream – then forgotten in the rush of tooth-brushing, coffee, and the commute to the office. And this is a shame, because the magi bring important gifts. How do you know they have come? Where do you look for their gifts? Let me tell you a story that may give you an idea of how it works.
Holidays in a household where there has been a divorce are often difficult, and Jane and Charlie’s personalities did not make this easier. They liked to make plans; they each had found in the other the kind of orderly person that they had been looking for. When the children had been young, the problem was coordinating with the ex-spouses. While this negotiating was emotionally difficult, everyone was motivated to come to a solution. Jane had never minded celebrating Christmas or Thanksgiving a day early or a day late – she just wanted to know when it was going to happen. The children were now young adults (one was Jane’s (girl) and two were Charlie’s (boys)), and, although they had all grown up in an orderly household, the kids (now young adults) seemed to opt for chaos at any opportunity. Jane did sympathize with the fact that they were trying to please two sets of parents, friends, and girlfriends. They had been finally pinned down to all drive out to Binghamton together on Christmas afternoon in time for dinner, evening festivities, and a few days of sitting in front of the fire, taking walks in the snow, and doing jigsaw puzzles. As usual, once she knew what to expect, Jane had happily gone ahead with her plans. They were going to have roast goose with plum sauce. It was a trick in divorced families not to repeat the Christmas dinner the kids had just had somewhere else the day before, but she felt pretty safe with goose. All the grocery shopping had been done, and the goose was in the oven. There had been no word from the kids, but that was usually a good sign that no one’s plans had changed.
It was very, very cold for December, and there was a slight glimmer of snow in the air, but it was far too cold for a heavy storm. There was no need of more snow for a white Christmas – they already had plenty. Jane found particular delight in the first covering of the ground in white; it brought out her most sentimental side. But, by the third or fourth snow cover in this snow belt, she was already tired of it. Snow is something like Christmas, she thought. Your first Christmases are wonderful, but then you have to really work at getting any of the magic back. They had gradually cut back on Christmas over the years. Jane used to insist on the whole thing – an expedition to cut the tree, wreaths on every door, carols and eggnog in the evening – but the first year that they could not round up the kids to cut a tree, they started decorating a big potted ficus tree in the parlor instead, and the more and more of the decorations remained in the attic through December, waiting to be given to Goodwill or to the first of the kids who set up housekeeping and had a holiday spirit.
Still, there was nothing wrong with the way the house looked. There was a wreath on the front door, a centerpiece in the dining room, and the presents were wrapped and spread around the ficus tree. Even the kids’ stockings were still hung and stuffed with candy and assorted little treasures that Jane had picked up over the course of the past few weeks. This was a standing joke. There could be anything in the stockings from paperclips to new underwear to plastic wind-up toys. But emptying the stockings was the one thing that the children always said that they did not want to give up. In any case, the house looked warm and cozy and orderly – soon it would be littered with luggage, plastic sacks full of unwrapped presents and the wrapping paper duly shredded by Katie’s cat, which she insisted on bringing with her.
Despite the fact that all was going well – the fire caught and blazed at the first try, all of the errands had been done, she was not missing any ingredients when she assembled the dinner for the oven, the old snow glowed under the street lights – Jane was finding herself stressed. Holidays did that anyway, and she had not been able to exercise this morning. Jane usually started her day at the gym; it took away built-up tensions and assured that she would be able to spend long hours at her computer at the office. She worked at the YMCA downtown; she used their exercise facility just as the early risers – those trying to exercise, take a shower and be in their offices elsewhere by eight or nine – were leaving. Since she worked right in the building and could pretty much set her own hours, she found that reading for an hour at home in the morning with the remains of the coffee pot and then an hour of treadmill, sit-ups, and weight exercises set her up for the day.
At that hour, she found that she shared the facility with the retirees. They were early risers, but they also waited for the first crowd to clear before they showed up in the lobby and waited for their friends to arrive before heading down the hall to the gym. Why they came to the Y was somewhat of a mystery to Jane; very little exercise got done. They moved in small groups of two or three from one piece of equipment to another; one would pull down the bars and the other would talk to the exerciser. And then the exerciser would let go of the bars to respond. No one ever spoke and moved at the same time, and it was clear that the conversation was the most important feature of exercising at the Y. Very few muscles were built up, hardly any calories were burned. The elderly chatter was somewhat annoying to Jane, who had a set routine and never stopped as she moved from one piece of equipment to another, altering her pattern only if an oldster was sitting on the needed weight machine. The good news, however, was that they did not like loud music any more than she did, so the attendant had learned to turn it off while they were all there.
Jane always said hello to the old folks, but she seldom stopped to talk other than to remark if the weather was extravagant in some way. They knew little about her, other than she worked in the building, was married, and had grown children. On the other hand, she knew a great deal about them. Many of them were hard of hearing, so they spoke in stentorian voices to each other, and one couldn’t help but overhearing. She did not mind for the most part. The medical appointments and impending operations were the worst of it; the WW II adventures (which consisted of more boot camp stories from Alabama and Mississippi than real battle tales) were the best of it.
In any case, she was feeling some stress from not starting her day out by putting her muscles through their paces; there had been so much to do in the house that she had not even gotten out for a walk. But it was all done now and there was nothing to do but wait for the young energy and hormones to invade the house.
The goose was now in the oven; Frank Sinatra was singing Christmas carols and Charlie was cracking open the chestnuts she had roasted to hold them until dinner. The smell of the sizzling fat filled the house, and Jane periodically went out to the kitchen to spoon off the drippings. No wonder geese can swim in that cold water, she thought, as cup after cup of goose fat accumulated in the empty coffee cans which would be put on the back step to solidify before tossing in the next week’s garbage. “Christmas is coming, the goose getting fat. . . .” “It was “beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.” The old songs whirled around the house.
But, at six the goose was certainly done, as were the sweet potatoes and creamed onions. The rolls, peas, and sauce were just waiting to be heated up when the kids came through the door. But they did not come through the door. They were never on time, but they were already an hour late. Charlie and Jane started to debate calling Katie’s cell phone. The discussion went the way it always did; Jane wanted to call and Charlie wanted to wait. He thought that harassing the kids only made them contrary. By six-thirty, however, Charlie was hungry enough not to care whether the kids were contrary and worried enough that he at least wanted assurance that they weren’t in the hospital somewhere between Worcester and Binghamton.
A phone call soon ascertained that they were stuck out on Interstate 88 because they had run out of gas. (“Out of gas on one of the coldest nights of the year – what did we give those kids a college education for?”) They had called AAA, but it was Christmas, and they were a long way from the station, and it had been over an hour. They were freezing, but Katie was most worried about her cat. (“The cat is the one animal in that car that has nothing to worry about!”) They were too far away to try to go out and rescue, but Charlie called the state police, and they sent an officer out who let the kids sit in the warm cruiser until the AAA truck arrived. By the time the three travelers arrived for dinner, Jane was beside herself, the kids were tired but not hungry (“no doubt they stopped at McDonald’s on the way”) and the goose was – well – everyone’s goose was more than “cooked.”
They stayed for the week, opened presents, played with the cat, half-finished one jigsaw puzzle, and complained about the slow internet connection and lack of cable television. While no one slammed doors, they all spent time behind ones that were firmly closed. Meals were almost silent. It seemed as if all of the glass balls from the missing Christmas tree were broken on the floor, and everyone was trying hard not to cut their feet. Crunch, crunch went the glass balls as they trod on them softly in their slippers. All seemed greatly relieved when they had to go back to prepare for New Year’s Eve festivities. As Jane vacuumed, she realized that her anger and frustration with the three kids had at least transcended step-motherhood – she was equally incensed with Katie as with Charlie’s two boys – the boys being at least more apologetic than her daughter and having had the good sense not to bring any pets. (Cat hair was everywhere and something had scratched the back of the sofa.)
She could not wait to get to the gym, reestablish her routine, and work off her stress. She would be happy if the holidays were abolished – all of them. They bred nothing but stress, disappointment, and work. Were there more happy Valentines than unhappy ones on February 14th? She doubted it. Were people really thankful to see all their relatives in November for turkey? How many people really had merry little Christmases, she wondered. In fact, she did not wonder, she knew even if they would not admit it. Her best friend Julie had no children, but she hated the holidays because of her childhood memories of a father who drank, a grandfather who yelled, and a mother who cried. So much for peace on earth.
The old folks were out in force this morning, but they talked little of the holiday. She knew few by name, but there were three men whose conversation she had found more interesting than most, and she had gotten to know them a little. Ken was probably the oldest and certainly largest; he was over eighty and had the kind of bulk that big and strong men end up with as they age and muscle starts to atrophy. His skin sagged at the joints, a reminder that it had been used to cover more flesh than the aging Ken now possessed. He was loud and jolly and had a large store of bad jokes for almost any occasion. Before the holiday it had been Santa jokes. His best pal was Joey, who was small and thin; skin that did not sag was testimony to the fact that Joey had always been on the scrawny side. He was younger than Ken, but they seemed to have known each other most of their lives. They had lately been joined by Ken’s son Brian, who had just recently retired and was not yet into the routine. For example, he tried hard to really exercise, but he was no match for his father and Joey, who did all they could to prevent anyone from stopping the conversation long enough to raise a sweat. Brian told his father firmly this morning that he had to exercise after all he had eaten over the holiday, and Ken and Joey wandered off to look for other prey.
“How was your holiday?” Joey asked her. “Santa good to you?”
“It was OK. Glad it’s over.”
“Oh, com’on. Betcha were glad to see the kids.”
“You know how it is – glad to see them come, glad to see them go. I keep thinking they will grow up, but they never do. How about you?”
“We went to Ken’s sister’s house. What a spread. I love the holidays.”
“Glad someone does. How about your family? Any kids?”
Joey looked up and shook his head in a rotating motion. It was hard to know what he meant, but it did not matter as he roamed over to the door to greet some more of his cronies who had just arrived.
Jane went back to her sit-ups, but the third time that she brought her head up from her knees, she found herself eye to eye with Ken’s milky blue irises.
“You shouldn’t ask Joey about his kids.” Ken spoke softly and kindly, but she felt like she was being scolded.
“I was just making conversation” she said. And you guys started it, she added silently. I just want to be left alone.
“Joey had a son. It wasn’t just that his son was killed in Nam, it was that Joey really encouraged him to join up. You see, Joey was younger than the rest of us, and he missed out on the war – the second one. And then, during Korea he joined up, but never made it out of Mississippi. He always felt he missed something. He didn’t miss nothing, but you couldn’t tell him that. He thought the kid will feel better if he went over there. Never forgave himself.”
“That’s awful.” Viet Nam was her generation’s war; she knew parents who were against beating the draft, but none that actively encouraged their sons to sign up. What was he thinking? What must he be thinking now?
“That’s not all. Before young Joe was killed but while Joey was doing some heavy worrying over him, his daughter got pregnant. She told him at a bad time, and he called her some names he probably wished he hadn’t, and the boyfriend took her away to the west coast. They speak – not as much as when her mother was alive – but she would never come home for the holidays. Didn’t even show up when Joey had by-pass.”
“Didn’t he ever apologize? Especially after his son died.”
“When young Joe died, his sister blamed her father. It was easy to do, since he was blaming himself. He was always sorry about everything, but his being sorry and sad just reminded everyone what he’d done. Since Emma died, he’s all alone – but, to tell you the truth, even when Emma was alive he was alone. We all try to take care of him, but he spends most of his time tinkering with young Joe’s old Mustang in the garage out back. I keep saying we’ll find him out there one final day.”
“Thank you. Thank you for letting me know.”
Jane didn’t have the heart for more exercise. She showered and changed and went up to her office and tried to catch up with what she had missed in the past few days. There was plenty to do – the registrations for vacation and after school programs for the spring were coming in, and the cash collections from the time she was out were still in the safe. On top of it, she was also responsible for the building and the pump in the pool had not yet given up, but it was making a death rattle. She had to get someone to look at it, and then try to figure out how they would pay for the repairs. There was little time to think.
But that night she was all alone. Charlie had been home for dinner, and built a fire for their coffee and dessert, and afterwards went out to play bridge. Jane had opened the novel she hadn’t had time to get back to over the holidays, but she couldn’t read. She was still angry with the kids, but she kept seeing Ken’s face. Not Joey, Ken. He looked at her out of the fireplace, and when she turned away she found him peering at her out of the reflection of the frosty windows. She decided to focus back on the kids. She tried to remember how angry she was with them; she hadn’t even heard from them since they left. Stirring up the embers of the dying fire, she tried to stir up the coals of that anger. The fire revived, but the anger died.
When Charlie came home, Jane was asleep in front of the fire. When he woke her to tell her it was time for bed, he also told her that he had forgotten to give her the message that Katie had called before Jane had come home from work that afternoon. Katie was asking if they could mind her cat since she had a chance to go to California for a month for a project at work.
“Actually, I didn’t forget,” he added with a smirk. “I knew you’d hit the roof.”
“I suppose we could take the cat.”
Charlie stopped dead with each foot on a different stair. “Katie will be pleased. And surprised. It will be like a late Christmas present.”
“Yes,” said Jane with a smile and a glance over her shoulder. She took his hand and pulled him to the next step. “That is what it will be.”