That Special Christmas Presence

There are a few fond memories associated with Fourth of July picnics or Labor Day camping trips, but Thanksgiving and Christmas provide the most. Those are the times we tend to spend with many family members where everyone talks about the silly and sad and strange times they've had together. (Of course, that's also the time to push each other's buttons and install new buttons for next time, but nothing's perfect.) Even on Christmases I spent alone, I reminisced about previous ones such as when my brother Lou and I helped Dad build a doll house for our sister or the Christmas we found a key on the tree that unlocked the shed holding new bikes we rode through three inches of snow in the pitch black morning.

I know some people complain about having their birthdays too close to Christmas. Their personal celebration gets lost in the orgy of shopping, feasting, and visiting. My brother and I were lucky -- our birthdays were close enough to frame the day with bits of extra enjoyment. My birthday is December 15th. That was the official day the holidays began in our family. We bought the tree (or later put it together), Dad strung the lights, and everyone put on bulbs, ornaments, and tinsel. Somewhere in there we had a birthday cake and I opened a few presents, giving everyone a harbinger of the Christmas yet to come.

Lou's birthday was January 2d. That was the day everything got packed away: the ornaments, the strings of Christmas cards on the walls, the wooden crèche with the cute little light. The presents that had littered the floor for days were finally assigned places on shelves or in closets or drawers. The house returned to normal. But we had one final celebration, a miniature Christmas replay with a cake and candles and more presents to open. Only then were the holidays over for us. Now that I have my own family and am the designated light-stringer, we still follow this schedule.

I say my brother's birthday "was" the 2d, not "is" because he died a few years ago. Technically, that will always be his birthday and I will always use it to signify the end of the season, but we'll never have another cake or post-New Year's party because Lou is now past tense. But that's not the worst part of the holidays.

He died in a car accident two days before Christmas. While there is no good time for a sudden death, Christmas has to be one of the worst. That anniversary intrudes on the season, skewing the holidays into a different realm. If I don't carefully monitor the memories, then instead of laughter about Lou and I wrapping up joke presents for our friends, I'll remember the late night sobbing phone call from my mother, making my own call to my sister on Christmas Eve, and flying to the funeral a couple days after Christmas when his wife and boys finally got out of the hospital. At the wake, we stood talking and eating around a decorated tree towering over a huge pile of unopened presents, left because no one was sure what to do with all the gifts bearing Lou's name.

Those memories will forever be a part of my Christmas, but so will the happy times. My goal now is to enjoy the current holidays to the fullest, to help everyone around me create new, fun memories that may assist each of us in future Christmases deal with the ghosts of Christmas past.