I was going about my business the other day — I was in the middle of rearranging my Agatha Christie collection for the tenth time — when Dolly Parton came on the radio singing All I Want for Christmas Is You. Christmas? Already?
No. Dolly sang, “I don’t want a lot for Christmas,” and I started to nod — no, not a lot, just the end of this annus horribilis. I want to watch that chopper lift off the White House lawn and take 2020 away. Then I want to sit inside a cafe drinking espresso with people talking around me and me pretending to write but listening. (Hey — Nora Ephron’s mother said everything is copied.) Now that would be nice. That’s what I want for Christmas.
So, listening to Dolly made me ask myself: In a winter pandemic and after a devastating year, is Christmas important?
During a pandemic, things tend to lose their definite meaning, like what day it is. You think it’s Wednesday only to find out it’s the weekend, and really what difference does it make because whatever day it is, you’ll be sitting at the edge of your bed writing.
At some point this year, every day began to feel like the day before — one long ribbon of sameness. Some days I feared I had fallen ill with the sleeping sickness that descended over Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude — an insomnia plague that caused memory loss. I am *this* close to labeling things. Then Dolly sang, and it was like someone had gone and lit up the Rockefeller Christmas tree.
Now, I have never been overenthusiastic about Christmas. Most years, I just want it over with. New Year’s is more my thing and Halloween.
I look forward to family Christmas gatherings like one would visit the dentist, but this year it feels different. This year it feels important to celebrate it because we are still here, surviving this fine mess, and so many others are not.
I keep on thinking about how people celebrated Christmas in the middle of the influenza pandemic in 1918. From what I have read, many families had empty seats at the table that eve. Sadly, at dinner tables all around the world, there will again be many empty seats. We grieve for the lives lost.
As we approach the 25th, Covid rates are soaring, isolation is the norm, and it seems to get darker earlier every day. We know who won the election but will exhale once we see that chopper take off from the White House lawn. (Sayonara and don’t come back.)
We can’t gather this Christmas — that is a fact. It’s not we shouldn’t gather; it’s we must not gather. We will do Zoom, and we will do Facetime, and we will talk on the phone, and we will miss each other. But that doesn’t mean that wherever you are, alone or not, you shouldn’t mark the end of a very difficult year and be grateful.
All of this got me thinking about Christmas’s past. The title of mine would be: Wearing velvet in the tropics. Puerto Rico at Christmas was one of taste, smells, and sounds. The aguinaldos. Coconut kissed rum and pineapple drinks, guava and cheese pastries, lechon, arroz con gandules, morcillas. Pasteles. Old San Juan with those tacky Christmas decorations you just love and the smell of tuberoses. Going to my grandmother’s house on Christmas day, Dona Lola, the matriarch, and anticipating what gift she had there for me. And how itchy that red velvet dress with the peter pan collar was.
But it was the anticipation: that was the thrill, the magic. As you get older, it fades away until it’s lost somewhere. You leave to work in other countries, travel, and are home for Christmas less and less. You resurrect it for your children in a living room in London, and that’s fun, but then they grow older too.
As I said, I am usually not one to go crazy for Christmas. A tree, a few bulbs scattered around the house, some lights and some presents. But this year, it feels different — important — to say, “well done; we made it, somehow, now let’s continue.” And to repeat the one thing this pandemic has shown us: we are all in this together.
So, let’s do those Zoom gatherings — at least it’s a good excuse to wear the new red lipstick I ordered on Amazon that I didn’t need and the shirt with the Peter Pan collar. And watch a tipsy Tio Toño sing his rendition of Feliz Navidad.