(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
The mantel is done, dressed with billows of fluffy artificial snow and a forest of tiny white flocked trees and candles, so I open the next box and pull out the family Christmas stockings.
As I slip the small loop at the end of each stocking over the hook under the mantle top, I think about the child, now an adult, who will take it down on Christmas morning.
Every moment of the day will be scripted by tradition. First, those who spent the night will stumble and stretch as they walk into the living room, sleepy, with the deliberate nonchalance of someone who cares deeply but doesn’t want it to show. The back door will open and one by one the rest will file in. Their eyes straying to the tree and the wrapped packages below it.
Pots of coffee will be made, the dogs will be underfoot until someone finally puts them outside. Comfortable chairs and corners will be claimed and when everyone is assembled the ceremony of Christmas morning will begin.
First, the “Santa” gifts. The toys, things they can share and enjoy--what used to be bicycles and Barbies and model trains but are now video games or family board games--will be opened. This used to be the big event of the day but now it’s more of a nod to tradition. Nobody in the house lies in the dark counting the minutes and hours until morning. Nobody is waiting and wondering, believing in magic. Nobody races to the tree. But Santa still comes, leaving one or two special gifts for the child inside every adult in the room.
Next, is breakfast. “Dad” always makes a big casserole we eat only on Christmas morning and the kids look forward to it each year.
After breakfast come the stockings. Everyone takes their stocking to their own corner or chair and they pull out one treat after another and admire it, taste or share it. The room is full of voices and the lingering fragrance of sausage and cheese and eggs.
Then, for a while the house will be quiet. They will wander back to bed, off to watch a movie or upstairs to play the new game. My daughter and son-in-law will leave to spend a few hours at their own home. This year the new baby will need a nap.
In the afternoon the Prime Rib will go in and just as the sun goes down we will gather around the table again. Then, after dessert, we’ll sit around the tree and exchange our gifts to one another, taking turns so that everyone has a chance to open each gift slowly and savor the moment.
And with that, the long day will be over. After our goodbyes I will walk through the house turning out lights, picking up stray ribbons and bows and folding empty boxes. I will stand in the dark room, lit only by the tiny lights on the tree, and my throat will tighten with tears because one more family gathering has come and gone and I still can’t say I appreciated it enough.
All this goes through my mind as I decorate the house, as I open each box and carefully hang each each empty stocking with tender, loving, care.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is the author of Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons. She can be reached at email@example.com