The author (left) and her big sister celebrate the Christmas of 1977.
The author (left) and her big sister celebrate the Christmas of 1977.

The Holiday Spirit Is Fueled by Longing for Past Merry Little Christmases

Driving down Central Avenue a few weeks ago, I found myself listening to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." That's not so strange. They must play that song a zillion times during KEZ's month of "continuous Christmas music," and I'm almost always tuned in.

What is strange is that I burst into tears, right there in broad daylight.

Through the years


home for the holidays

We all will be together

If the Fates allow

Until then, we'll just have to muddle through, somehow . . .

There's something appalling about crying on the road in the middle of a bright sunny day, and not just because the other cars get a clear shot of you blubbering at the wheel. It's more that the mood doesn't match the weather: How can anyone possibly be depressed under Phoenix's brilliant blue December sky?

But that lyric just slays me.

I honestly can't remember the last time all my brothers and sisters and I were home for Christmas. Scattered as we are from Phoenix to Flagstaff to Las Vegas to Milwaukee to Cleveland, even my mom has given up on getting us all in the same city at the same time.

The sad part is that, during our diaspora, I've suddenly started appreciating my siblings. I recently picked fights with both my sisters and it struck me, as I voiced my mea culpas, that my brattiness is a result of caring about them again, after years of focusing on friends and lovers instead.

Maybe I've moved enough to understand how situational friendship can be — and had enough breakups to know the same thing about men. For whatever reason, my brothers and sisters seem like the only constant, and I want to be together again, like we used to be.

And yet now there are children and needy in-laws and demanding jobs. We can't even get to the same time zone, let alone my parents' living room.

These are our muddling years, I suppose.

For the record, not every version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" contains the line that had me so rattled. Frank Sinatra himself thought it was too depressing, or so the story goes. He was recording an album called "A Jolly Christmas," according to Entertainment Weekly, and he asked if the songwriters could accordingly "jolly up" the lyric in question.

The version the songwriters altered for him is the one you usually hear today. There's no mention in it of muddling through, much less that hopeful little "somehow" dangling off the end. Instead, the singer urges us to "hang a shining star / upon the highest bough."

Far be it from me to impugn the judgment of the greatest singer of the 20th century, but blech.

Sinatra was wrong. The magic of the holiday has nothing to do with jolly ring-a-ding-ding and ho-ho-ho.

The emotional pull of Christmas, for most of us, isn't joy. It's longing.

Longing for the past; longing for the depth of feeling we once took for granted; longing for home.

At Christmastime, I sometimes find myself missing these things so deeply that I have tears in my eyes, as in that recent day on Central Avenue. But there's no better reminder of why you left home, really, than to visit it again.

In my once-a-year trips back to my parents' home in suburban Cleveland, my old house seems so much littler than I remember; my parents so small. And when you're used to having your own place, it's hard to return to the saggy twin bed of your youth — much less get confronted headlong by your parents' old habits.

"Wow, you're serving Jell-O as a salad," I remarked one recent Christmas.

"Yes, Jell-O salad," my mother said, confused. "I thought you loved Jell-O."

"Maybe when I was 6," I replied. "Anyway, it's made out of horses' hooves. That's not a salad. It's protein."

"But, Sarah," my mother said sweetly, "there are maraschino cherries in there!"

My parents set the thermostat at 62 degrees. They refuse to keep caffeine in the house, even though time and again I remind them that the one thing I require as a houseguest is Diet Coke. And why wouldn't I want to go to church with them?

I'm beginning to realize that what I long for isn't the home I grew up in.

It's my childhood.

When I was a kid, my favorite holiday song was "O Come, All Ye Faithful." They used to start our school Christmas pageant with it, and every year, we little kids would march up from the church basement in the dark, singing our hearts out with flashlights in hand. The flashlights were tipped with red crepe paper to look like candlelight — although I suppose the effect was not so much candles as torches. Singing, marching torches.

To a 5-year-old, the trick of tissue paper created the most amazing magic: the warm red glow, the row of lights bobbing along, and the music — especially the music. I remember joining with hundreds of little voices, belting out "O! Come! Let! Us! Adore! Him! Chriiiiiiist . . . the LORD!"

I was so drunk with excitement, I thought my heart might burst.

Today when I long for "home," I don't think of the inevitable colorless sky that greets anyone silly enough to travel to Ohio in December, or even the tree-lined street where I grew up, as familiar to me as my own face.

I think, instead, about being 5 years old and standing in the church basement, waiting for the first organ chords to come crashing in so we could parade up from the darkness, singing our way into the Christmas light.

I played a game of Life with two grade-school kids not long ago, and I have to admit I was floored when they started cheating. I mean, really. This is a game of chance. It's dependent on a spinning wheel.

It doesn't matter!

I'm not around small children enough to remember, apparently, that everything matters to them. Not just life and death, but the game of Life, and who gets to sit in the front seat, and whether you get a red Popsicle or a green one. Nothing is too small to fight over — because everything matters so very much when your heart is still young.

In my 30s, it feels just the opposite. I don't know about you, but it occurred to me this year that I can endure just about anything. I've made my skin so thick that nothing hurts.

I've become practical.

To the practical, Christmas no longer makes sense, which is why so many adults riff away on the awfulness of the season. The Muzak-y carols that start in October, the long lines at the mall, the boastful holiday letters.

Even those of us who have the Christmas "spirit," I think, are less engaged with the reality of the holiday than with trying to summon the ghosts of Christmas past. I've spent the Christmases of my adulthood longing for the Christmases of my childhood.

People with kids, I suppose, may have a few years enjoying the holiday. But they surely end up where my parents are today: dreaming of the Christmases they used to know, back when they had a passel of kids in footie pajamas. Now, they're stuck pressuring those kids to give them the time of day.


It occurs to me that I used to love playing Life. I remember praying to God as I spun the wheel — begging for a five so I could have twin babies! — and crying when I lost. I'm sure (though I don't remember specifically) that I also cheated when I played. I was a habitual cheater at board games when my brothers weren't looking.

I used to be so excited on Christmas Eve that I couldn't sleep. I remember that, too.

Now, at 32, I know what it's like to be too stressed to sleep, too angry to sleep, and even too tired to sleep. But only in my memory do I know what it's like to be too excited to sleep. Nothing is that awesome, not anymore. And that breaks my heart, even as I insist that my heart can't be broken.

Plenty of great old-school carols joyously celebrate Christ and His birth. But the only secular songs that work for me in the slightest are the ones touched with sadness.

Just think about "White Christmas," which Irving Berlin supposedly wrote by the pool at the Arizona Biltmore (but, in reality, probably didn't).

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas

Just like the ones I used to know

Where the treetops glisten

And children listen

To hear sleigh bells in the snow . . .

You could only write a song like that in a place like Phoenix: A cold, snowy Christmas is mostly appealing when you aren't in the middle of it, knee-high in slush and freezing your tail off.

And yet, on the Christmases that I do make it back to Ohio, I'm struck by how the cold air rips through your lungs — equal parts pain and pleasure.

I'll take a walk with my dad along the edge of the barren woods. We have real conversations, my dad and me. We're always pushing books on each other; we always have new theories to try out on each other. Yes, I think to myself as I walk. This is why I come back.

Or Adam and Rachel and I make cookies. The younger of my two brothers is now roughly the size of a tank; he pitched for his college baseball team and bulked up accordingly. But get a tube of frosting in his hands, and he giggles like a schoolgirl.

We've done this together for years, and every year I think he may be too cool to join in. But he's never let me down.

I won't be going home this year. The airlines want something like $800 for a direct flight to Cleveland. Theoretically, I could get to Hawaii for less. Hawaii! It seems silly to brave the airport on the busiest day of the year when you could save the money instead for some exotic weekend getaway.

Even when you're homesick, there's no comparison between Cleveland and Oahu.

Especially when the Cleveland you remember isn't there anymore. Neither of my sisters is making it home this year. And my brother Adam, the giggling tank, just got engaged. His fiancée is incredibly nice, but it strikes me that Adam's days of helping me with the icing are probably over.

It's one more reminder that we aren't 5 years old anymore. We're grown-ups, or at least we're supposed to be.

We have no choice but to muddle through . . . somehow.


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