It is almost here: my 47th Christmas.
By now, I have had all sorts: the happy Christmas when my grandmother, bearing dolls purchased at the local grocery store, reveled in her great-granddaughters’ delight; the Christmas when my father-in-law put bows around everyone’s necks and declared us his presents; the Christmas on which Abby opened her “major” gift, a used eBay iPod, only to find that it did not work. (Remembering her kind, parental-dignity-preserving manner touches me still.) There have been bicycles and Barbies, Wiis and Easy Bake Ovens. Thanks to fostering, for a decade, we awoke at dawn to the chaos of gaggles of children and heaps of gifts.
And then we had thirteen Christmases alone with our daughters. Cinnamon rolls at dawn. Presents. Hershey’s chocolate bars soon after. Board games and, sometimes, a movie.
These Christmases were never fancy: we drove to various relatives’ houses, visited briefly, and returned home, where to the horror of my favorite aunt, there was never even a traditional meal–or a meal at all–as I pragmatically let the girls fill up on stocking candy while we adults ate cinnamon rolls all day.
The upheaval and familial changes this year have required us to do some restructuring of Christmas–we mailed presents to April in New York, along with the brown felt Christmas countdown moose that she always used to keep us in the spirit. I consciously chose to decorate the tree while Abby had classmates over: that way I could not weep.
Until this year, I never knew how many baby Jesuses were on our Christmas tree–it seemed like I unwrapped babies all evening. One, swaddled and beaming, nearly did me in–I hastily tossed Him in the Goodwill pile, though later, with my grandmother’s voice haunting me (“It’s just Jesus“), I retrieved Him.
I broke into dark laughter at the more sentimental ornaments, remembering a time when I thought those losses were hard to cope with. The loss of an eighteen year old cat, I learned this year, is altogether trivial compared to the loss of a granddaughter. This year I have climbed and plunged through the many gradients of sorrow.
And now, it is Christmas. We are expected to Christmas.
Greg and I attended three Christmas parties, where we mingled with strangers and laughed through Dirty Santa. We enjoyed steaks, good music, door prizes and the fire pit. Abby spent her birthday money on Christmas gifts for children living at the local women’s shelter; we bought gifts for a needy family’s grandchild. Abby rang the Salvation Army bell at Kroger for FBLA and at Walmart for Key Club. And, even though I dislike TV, I recorded Christmas movies; at night, when Greg is dozing and Abby is out and about, I have watched them in our quiet house.
The first one I watched saved Christmas.
Meet Me in St. Louis.
Its description didn’t seem particularly Christmas-changing: “A St. Louis family stays in town for the 1904 World’s Fair.” The movie itself was lighthearted enough until the family faced something only the father wanted: a move to New York after Christmas.
After a Christmas Eve ball, Esther, the older sister played by Judy Garland, comes home to find her younger sister Tootie crying at the bedroom window. To comfort her, she begins singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”:
“Have yourself a merry little Christmas/Let your heart be light/next year all our troubles will be out of sight.”
It was after midnight, but I was suddenly fully awake, thinking, “That’s not how that song goes.”
“Have yourself a merry little Christmas/make the Yuletide gay/Next year all our troubles will be miles away.”
“Once again as in olden days, happy golden days of yore/ faithful friends who were dear to us will be near to us once more.”
“Someday soon we all will be together if the fates allow/ until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow/so have yourself a merry little Christmas now.”
Muddle through? Had I heard the words “muddle” and “Christmas” in the same song? Was I allowed to muddle Christmas?
The next morning I told Greg, “You have to see this,” and played the clip. Silent for a moment, he turned to me and said, “That’s significantly different.”
Missing were the words, “From now on,” indicating a perpetual future lack of trouble.
Missing were, “Here we are . . . Who are . . . gather near to us . . . through the years” indicating family and friends ever-present, close, and celebrating.
And, most significantly “hang a shining star upon the highest bough,” an image of hope–exchanged for the paltry, slightly negative”muddle.”
The 1944 original song presents the image of a difficult Christmas, a solitary time away from friends who, aware of the family’s inability to fully celebrate, allow them the gift of space.
It gives the promise of time and its healing power–next year.
In her acting, Garland acknowledges the inability of even sisters to help one another–looking at Tootie the first few seconds that she sings, but then looking away, out to the trees, the snow, and the sky, as heartbroken Tootie stares straight ahead.
Unlike later versions, the 1944 version gives the option of getting through, patching together, of muddling. Versions like Sinatra’s, having been “jollied up,” are celebratory rather than anticipatory.
This year, though, we aren’t extremely celebratory. It’s been a year of trauma, sorrow, and loss, and to pretend otherwise would simply be that: pretending.
We are happy to have been given sweet Stephanie Grace, to have held her little heft, seen her minute fingernails, traced her tiny nose. She will ever be a part of our lives and hearts and Christmases.
We all know–this holiday will likely be the hardest. We will quietly celebrate, together, our survival and His coming.
This Christmas, for the three of us at home, promises to be merry and little.
It’s so beautiful to me, the prospect: we can just muddle this one.