The season of Christmas is a time when my senses are on overdrive. The smell of pine floods my memory with visions of my brother and me sitting under a tree and opening presents on Christmas morning. The sweet granular taste of cookie dough on my tongue makes me hungry not for sugar but the holiday. Christmas carols ringing in my ear remind me of nights during Advent when each dinner was followed by a brief concert. The sight of the crèche in St. Patrick’s Cathedral brings me back to the pilgrimages I made when I was child, pilgrimages that meant Santa would soon be in town. With so many memories called to mind, it seemed impossible to zero in on just one and proclaim, “That’s it, that’s the smell that most reminds me of Christmas.” So I closed my eyes and revisited the two years I “missed” Christmas, the two years I was living in Korea and could not come home. Both years Christmas came and went and despite being surrounded by the familiar smells, tastes, sights and songs, Christmas was not Christmas. Though I spent the afternoon with friends in celebration, what I felt most achingly was the absence of family. Without the warmth of their presence, everything else seemed flat and one dimensional. Christmas, it turned out for me, was about feeling the closeness of family, their love like a woolen blanket draped around my body on a cold snowy evening. What makes my other sensory memories so dynamic is their connection to family. It wasn’t the sights or smells that mattered, it was who I was with and what we were doing made the greatest impact.
The place and time of year that it occurs is irrelevant, but when I smell zeppoles frying in hot oil I am immediately carried back to my childhood, standing in my grandfather’s basement as he makes dozens of them for Christmas. My grandfather loved me and like many Italians he demonstrated his love with food. Even though he died more than two decades ago, whenever I bit into a zeppole, even though they aren’t as delectable as his were, I can feel his arms wrapped around me in hug.
I love the smell of pine, and walking through the streets in New York City during the winter one can’t help but be accosted by the smell. Tree vendors are everywhere but Christmas trees without decorations are simply trees. It’s the decorations that given them their personality, and it’s the stories behind the decorations – the stories about growing up in a family full of love - that make them special. Every year, I go over to my parents’ house and as we unwrap each individual decoration, we relive some of the most magnificent memories. On the tree is my first pair of shoes, the rattle I loved most as a baby, reminders of the love that has surrounded me since I was born. We also hang memories of people and animals who have touched our hearts but are no longer with us. Fireball, the dog I grew up with, is with us again every year as we hang her collars on the tree and reminisce about crazy things she used to do. Three years ago Gary was born, and since then we have been collecting memories of him on our tree. Last year he was old enough to make decorations for his “me size tree,” a three foot tree in Home Depot that he absolutely had to have because he and the tree were the same height. I look at those decorations and I can feel him sitting on my lap as he decorated them.
Music has never been something I greatly enjoy. I often prefer silence but Advent has always been the one exception. In my childhood and adolescence, every night after dinner, mom would pass around the song books and we would take turns picking which song we would sing. My father and my brother sang the loudest, for they could carry a tune, but mom and I joined in thankful that no one but family was there to listen. Last year, I resumed the tradition with Gary. He was too little to sing, but his laughter, as Kati and I belted out one bad note after another, tickled us with both encouragement and love. What wouldn’t we do to keep him laughing?
With Christmas comes a plethora of television specials and movies and everyone has their favorite – mine is Miracle on 34th Street, and I watch it every year, except the two I was away, because when I watch it, I watch it with family. Two years ago we had our first Christmas picnic. The night before Christmas Eve we set up a picnic blanket in the living room and have a picnic for dinner. During dinner we watch Miracle on 34th Street. Last year, following the movie we had a camp in, setting up a makeshift tent and setting out sleeping bags. Gary fell asleep cuddled in my arms, the rhythmic sound of his heart beating gently in my ears. Yes, our evening centered around seeing one of the best Christmas movies of all time, but the memory embedded most deeply in my mind, the memory now evoked by thought of that movie, is the feel of Gary’s warm breath on my cheek.
For me, it is that unmistakable sense of belonging, of loving and being loved that whispers the meaning of Christmas more loudly than anything else. The feel of family is what heightens my senses. Family, the way we touch each other – spiritually, physically and emotionally – is the light that illuminates all other aspects of the holiday season.