“Who’s going to be Jesus?”
”I’ll get Gus!” Paris yelps, and I hear his feet drumming up the stairs.
“I’ll be home for Christmas…” the Riders in the Sky sing soulfully on the CD player, “you can count on me….”
Upstairs, all is glowing and rosy. There’s a Bobos-in-Paradise-style “log” made of recycled coffee grounds burning in the fireplace, a nine-foot conifer ablaze with colored lights, and bursts of laughter from the rest of the family.
Down in my office, where I have darted, everything would be dark if it weren’t for the string of malfunctioning Christmas lights that Paris helpfully stretched across the windows and along the floor. As I sit, typing furiously, these white lights flash erratically and disconcertingly: Flash! Darkness. Flash-flash! Flash! Darkness again. Flash! One string then goes dead and the other flashes double-time. Flash-flash-flash-flash!
“Mary has to get on my back,” I hear Molly say. This is followed by sounds of fumbling and giggling and a loud thump. “Ouch–” my husband says sympathetically to one daughter, and to another, “No, put it back, the candy cane belongs on the tree–”
“I’ll be home for Christmas…“
“Guys, I also brought blankie to wrap the baby in,” Paris announces, thundering back downstairs with an armful of swaddling clothes and the doll he was given when Violet was born.
“Mummy?” Violet is calling down the stairs.
“… if only in my dreams…“
“Just a minute–”
“Meg, you have to come upstairs.”
“I’ll be right up,” I call, typing so fast my fingers start to smoke. “I’m just… looking for… Nutcracker tickets online….”
This is a lie. I am not buying tickets. I am feverishly taking notes about the scene upstairs so that I can faithfully reproduce it later, here. And just as a quantum physicist tries to stay out of the way of hurtling electrons the better to observe them, so I’ve been trying to keep my scribbling out of sight of the children so that surveillance won’t skew their reality. This means I sometimes have to fib.
“Mummy?” Now it is Molly.
“I think you’d better come upstairs now,” says my husband warningly. He, of course, knows perfectly well what I am about. “There’s a–ah–nativity scene.”
I save my file, close the computer, dash back upstairs, and, in the beautiful glow of burning java, am greeted by–
“Mary,” Violet acknowledges, cradling Gus with an air of celestial modesty. Madonna and child rock slightly with the gait of the donkey, which is holding a string in its teeth. The other end of the string is attached to a pink balloon, held by Joseph. A small, platinum-haired person is capering madly around the holy family shouting, “I’m the fairy! I’m the Christmas fairy!”
“Watch out for the tree–”
“And I’m the obliging Democrat,” the donkey remarks drolly, “carrying the Mother of God to Bethlehem.”
“Phoebe, you are the Christmas angel,” Joseph corrects.
“I’m the fairy Christmas angel,” says the fairy Christmas angel.
There is a peculiar precariousness to the happiness of families at weekends. Everyone longs for Friday night, but by Sunday the jolly illusion is usually smashed. Events that sounded “fun” when they were two weeks away can become chores when the birthday party is an hour’s drive on howling highways; when children come home from a sleepover haggard and still with three hours of homework to do; when husbands and wives divide the children and take separate cars to run errands and fulfill social obligations, passing one another with a quick high-five in the hallway and then off again – and then one child runs a fever and the whole thing falls apart. I don’t want to overstate things–it’s not like we’re trying to commute to the Green Zone–but the fact is we all yearn for Norman Rockwell, and what we usually get is Ralph Steadman.
So you will understand our joy, grinning at one another in the light of the tree, for despite terrible odds–including a skating party, two sleepovers, and an upset stomach–the weekend has unexpectedly waxed Rockwellian.
We had converged on the Christmas tree lot in the cold, late afternoon, the Bigs and me in my car, the Littles and my husband in his, after a day spent scattered across great swaths of Maryland, Washington, D.C, and Virginia, depending on what time it was. My husband was feeling blah and was desperate to buy a tree and go home. Once we had one, and had wrestled it off the top of his car and into its stand, he went to lie down while I got dinner into the children. “Gloomy” and “anticlimactic” gets the atmosphere about right.
After the children had eaten, my husband came down, and for the first time in 13 years of stringing Christmas lights together we managed to hang them upside down, with the male plug pointing to the ceiling, and had painstakingly to extricate them from among the glossy needles. When we finally got the lights turned right-way around, there turned out not to be enough of them, so my husband went out into the cold dark to buy more while the children began hanging all the ornaments as close together as possible in the middle of the tree, where the lights were.
There’s nothing so well calculated to cheer up a bunch of gloomsters than unpacking old ornaments–with the annual rediscovery of “the elephant!” and “George Washington!” and “the cat with the fish!”–and so it proved again until amidst the boxes and tissue paper Violet came across a purple-painted sparkly clay heart she had made last winter at nursery school, and which had broken within minutes of arriving home. Immediately she curled up around this sacred object on the sofa, and it was only from a spreading damp patch that I realized she was crying.
This, in parenting lingo, is what’s known as a Teaching Moment.
“Children,” I announced, “I have something for you.” I opened a box and showed them four new blown-glass heart-shaped ornaments, each beautiful and each different. I resisted the cornball impulse to tell them the ornaments were “each different and each beautiful, like each of you,” but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to deliver the whole evanescence-of-material-goods message.
“These beautiful things are fragile,” I told them. “Like Violet’s sparkly heart, they will break. If not this year, maybe next. We should enjoy them while they last, but remember, they are just things. Do you understand?”
Four solemn faces looked at me.
“Things always break eventually. What doesn’t break is love. Love is the only real thing; everything else is just stuff. Do you see?”
Four heads nodded. I wondered if I would remember this little homily the next time someone smeared peanut butter on my dry-clean-onlies, and sighed.
“Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel… “
It is some time later, the tree is glowing with fresh lights, the Riders in the Sky are winding down, but I am sorry to say that the nativity scene is disintegrating into a kind of Christians-and-lions melee. My husband and I swiftly take advantage of the confusion to redistribute ornaments that the children have hung in a thick cluster at waist height.
“I’m going to get you!” Joseph taunts the fairy Christmas angel, and Mary is laughing so hard she drops the baby and—
“Watch out!” my husband yelps, shooting out an arm, “Don’t wave the sword near the–”
“It’s a star,” my husband says, wincing. “My fault.” All four children stare at the smashed ornament, but it is the eldest who dissolves.
“Oh, no, no, no–!”
“Sweetheart,” I break in rapidly, “Don’t you remember? It’s just a thing. All ornaments are bound to break at one –”
“But we’ve had it for years,” she sobs, her tears rolling freely, “and now it’s gone!”
“… Shall come to thee, O Israel…”
“Courage,” my husband says, looking at me with laughing eyes and kissing Molly’s forehead. The other children furrow their brows companionably, but already their interest has moved on. Molly sniffs, dabs her eyes, and suddenly brightens.
“I’m going to keep the broken pieces,” she says. “By the way, Mummy, did you think it was funny when I said, “I’m the obliging Democrat?”
My heart sinks. So, the electron knew about the crouching physicist all the time. “Yes, very witty, sweetheart,” I say quickly, “Now, where’s your lunchbox–”
“Are you going to put it in the Swamp?”