Christmas in the basement

There was a time for everything.

It needs no further explanation to say this was our first Christmas in the midst of a pandemic, and it was certainly different. Surprisingly, it might have been better.

Christmas days of years past were often filled with family merry-go-rounds, sprints between relatives’ roosts, packing up a car with presents, then unpacking them, wishing folks well, eating, unwrapping, repacking, driving, and repeating ad infinitum. Coming back home at the end of a multi-family quest was a gift in itself.

The Christmas Day race course had grown shorter in recent years. Family trees thin at the top and grow at the bottom. The trips to grandparents’ houses are now memories; with kids of our own to tow around, we move around less and less.

A bit of age makes Christmas all the more fun with our children. They’re old enough to appreciate and lean into the anticipation that is Christmas morning. They’re able to enjoy things differently–longer, even. I remember the furies of younger years, the tearing open of wrapping paper, the quick shouts of joy, the packages tossed aside in search of the next thing to tear into. It took us a full hour this year to make it through the pile under our tree, and not because it was plentiful–rather, the kids were patient, appreciative. The moment felt deeper.

We had a fire in the fireplace and coffee in our hands. Outside, the temperatures had plummeted far below freezing, a stiff wind busking before dawn. We brought in Taylor, who marked her fourteenth Christmas morning, and she curled up beside the couch, lazily napping as the kids celebrated their gifts. Otis received a squirrel squeak toy, which he promptly guarded over. We FaceTimed with Dad.

Christmas breakfast was at Carl and Dianne’s, where we met Alan and Kerri and Bear and River. We stuffed ourselves, then reclined in the floor for more presents. Dianne read Luke’s recounting of the Christmas story. Chris called from thirteen hours in the future, nearing midnight on the far side of the earth where he lives.

We came home around two, and Mom was close behind us. This was only our third visit together since March. Kel started on a pot roast for supper, and after she put it in the oven we visited. Later, snacks: summer sausage and truffle cheese and sweet mustard and a merry cabernet sauvignon. I revived the fire downstairs, and Taylor joined us again, and we exchanged gifts. For the second time, Mom gave me an ax (the first one broke earlier this fall), which I promptly took outside and put to use, much as any boy is wont to do with his Christmas toy.

Hours later, the pot roast was ready, as were the sweet potatoes and mac and cheese and salads. We circled round the table, lighting the final candle on the Advent wreath, giving thanks for our many blessings. And then we were left to recover, cleaning things up and putting away our extras and admiring the shiny and new. When the kids finally retired to bed, Kelly and Taylor and I lingered downstairs by the hearth, a last cup of coffee and thin spice cookies.

Different, but in many ways wonderful. I am sorry not to have had the chance to spend time with Dad. And I was sorry not to have the chance to see so many others who bring us smiles. I thumbed through social media a handful of times, and it was quickly obvious how many were spending the holiday away, or sheltered, or isolated, or any of the words that sound better than alone on Christmas. It didn’t take much effort on my part to share a short note. Maybe it helped.

Christmas is a day that holds you a bit captive, not unlike a day when you’re snowed in. You have to take care of things ahead of time–there’s no running to the store, none of the ready-made distractions that we can fill our time with when we reach vague boredom. Any typical Christmas would bring a busy enough itinerary so as to prevent anything like that from happening.

This Christmas threatened to test our endurance for abiding the smaller and quieter side of things. So it was we became coffee sippers, and fireplace tenders, and pot roast minders. There was a time for everything.

The prim guilt of Christianity perpetually reminds us not to forget the true meaning of the season. Something there was about a holiday spent sheltering mostly in place made it easier to conceive of a manger. The crowded-store commercialism of an otherwise holy day faded into the background as we shopped behind cloth masks, or ordered online, and perhaps even bought less as there were fewer visitors to indulge.

The deep, cold, dark depths of the winter solstice have made plenty a metaphor. And for many, the last few months have brought plenty of darkness. This made it all the easier, however, to see the light.