Ghosts of Christmas past

by Brian Clarey

The house seems quiet on those rare occasions when all the kids are asleep and I’m home alone, awake, uncomfortable in the stillness.

The wife is off to South Carolina, to run a half marathon for cancer research — a noble pursuit, to be sure, an amazing feat of discipline and focus. We are proud of her from afar and have spent the weekend cleaning the house in her honor. Her absence is keenly felt.

Going from a houseful of rambunctious children to this eerie quietude is a jarring transition, one that invites reminiscences and philosophical thought, particularly during this most nostalgic time of year.

The tree stands in the corner by the back door, ready to receive its blessing of lights and ornamentation. The decorations have descended from the attic and in boxes stacked by the hallway await affixture to mantles and window sashes and doorways. There will be lights and candy canes. There will be stockings and Santa hats. There will be happiness and cheer.

Yes, it’s Christmas time, and even I am not immune to the stirrings of goodwill and generosity that fill the air as sure as the scent of pine needles and chestnut farts. Even I take pleasure in roaring fires, whiskey-laced eggnog and the wanton spending spree that passes for holiday spirit these days. Even I recast barely remembered Christmases past in warm Technicolor tones.

Way back when, so long ago that I can’t even pinpoint the date, I had a Christmas surprise. Under my section of the tree on Christmas morning, tucked among sweaters I didn’t want and slacks that would itch my thighs, superhero Colorforms — whatever happened to Colorforms? — and maybe a snappy new box of crayons, sat a genuine toy.

A real toy, made of wood and metal, carefully crafted and painted, designed to last the ages.

It was a fort, which back in 1976 or so was a holdover from the days when children played with such things. Toy soldiers, of course, were designed to indoctrinate our children into militaristic ways, to prepare them for service to their country, for battle.

I didn’t know any of this then, of course… I just knew Santa had brought me this cool fort with cavalrymen on horseback, war-whooping Indians, riflemen on foot and howling braves wielding tomahawks. I didn’t even know I wanted it, but I knew it was awesome… for a while, anyway. Like every other toy I ever had, it soon lost its luster and receded from my childhood storyline. But I remember the morning as perhaps the last bit of Christmas magic in which I truly believed.

My children still believe in Santa Claus — at least they say they do. The boys are old enough that believing in the fat man in the red suit cramps their emerging styles — both say they are the only ones in their classes who still carry the faith. That’s what they say, anyway….

I suppose I’ll have to tell them soon, tell them how their mother and I try to scrape a Christmas together each year, how we fret and worry and plan, how we’ve been filling their heads with these sugarplum visions and then, once we get them to sleep, make Christmas magic in between sips of dark beer and dew-eyed recollections.

It will be the end of something, for sure. It will be a lean Christmas this year, for us and nearly everyone we know whose fortunes are tied in to the ebb and flow of labor and commerce, and it will be helpful for the kids to know that the lack of abundance under the tree does not directly correlate to their behavior this year — does not, in fact, correlate to anything other than time and money, both of which have been in short supply lately for their mother and me.

We will fill the void with stories about friends of ours who haven’t had regular paychecks since before the Fourth of July, who have lost loved ones this year or gotten the kind of terrible news that changes lives forever. We will fill it with love, and try to impart some sense of the greater meaning of this holiday without bribing them with an exuberance of gifts.

But I still have a trick up my sleeve. On Christmas night we’ll all be staying at my uncle’s house in New Jersey. There, up in the attic, he has kept for all these years my wooden fort with the tiny toy soldiers and Indians. After the family has all gone home and the last of the Christmas cookies have been polished off, we plan to set that fort up, my uncle and I, and see if it still holds enough Christmas magic to charm my two young boys.