Ghosts of Christmas past

December 25, 2014 in Guatemala, North America, Travelogue


When I was a little girl, Christmas was pure magic.

Snow covered log cabins, ice skating on winter afternoons, hot chocolate with marshmallows and peppermint sticks. Christmas mornings were cinnamon rolls around a tree and gifts that were mostly homemade, in stockings that my mother had crocheted before we were born.

I got a new baby doll every year until I was 14. That last year I BEGGED my parents to please give me one more, even though I was solidly too big. I still have her. She smelled like baby powder straight out of the package and had those eyes that rolled back and forth from asleep to awake.

When I was seven, I got a doll house (that I also still have, I rehabbed it and gave it to Hannah when she was 7… this winter when we were in New Hampshire for four months it was the one thing she got out of storage and enjoyed again, at 17.5) They found it in a pile of trash by the roadside. My Mom and Gram spent a month of late nights bringing it back to life: yellow plastic siding, black paper shingles that were diamond shape and curled up slightly, new wall paper in the tiniest floral prints: yellow in the kitchen, blue in the bedroom. Rugs were painted on the floors, tiny trim was added around door frames. My mother made three miniature stained glass lamps to hang from the ceilings, of real glass, just like the Tiffany lamps she made for our house. There was a television made from one of my Dad’s old plastic razor cases and a claw footed ceramic tub in the little bathroom. Even as a child I loved a bath tub. I was enthralled.

I got a new pair of snow white figure skates when I was 16, the first new pair I’d ever owned. I sing when I ice skate… humming the skater’s waltz, usually. I convinced my children that they could skate perfectly well, even on the first try, if they would just sing it. It works. I promise.


Waking up on Wolfe Island… 2013

The months before Christmas were always the most exciting, as we all worked away on the gifts we would give.

It wasn’t that purchased gifts were disdained, it’s just that we’re an artistic bunch and gifts of self and time were always valued over store bought things. And, in retrospect, there were plenty of years when money was tight and I’m sure my parents struggled without ever showing it. I knit my dad a red and white striped hat when I was ten, carefully constructing the big red pom pom for the top, just like my Mim had taught me. He still has it.

My mother always sewed us something, a toy, clothing, pajamas, you name it. My brother carved things. The year I was 17 I spent months cross-stitching the entire “Footprints in the Sand” poem for my mother, it’s one of her favourites. It still hangs by her bed.  About six years ago my Dad gave me an eagle bone that he’d hollowed out and carved a teak wood plug for. He scrimshawed ferns on the outside… a needle case for when I traveled.

Several years before that, he carved me four beautiful hair picks, two spiral, and two tipped with tagua nut. My mom sewed a black velvet case for them. A week before Christmas, I’d unknowingly cut my shoulder length hair to my ears. I spent the entire next year growing it back out so that the following Christmas I could wear those picks.

Every single year my mother and my grandmother both gave each child a Christmas ornament, a tradition I’ve continued for my kids. I always loved it, and it was so special decorating the tree, telling and retelling the ornament stories. But when I moved to America and was alone for the first time, that box of ornaments that my Mom shipped to me became a whole new thing and I began to understand the depth of that gift. I still add an ornament each year, for each kid, and one for me. This year they are tin punched birds that I found in Antigua, exactly like the ones I always hung on the tree that my parents bought here before I was born. Another shared memory to span another generation.


Guatemalan stockings… 2010

 When my children were tiny we read special story books aloud every night for the entire month of December.

Tony still reads A Christmas Carol and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever aloud every year. My favourite reading memory was Christmas Eve, the year we were in Africa. We were camped, in our tents, on the edge of the Grand Erg Oriental, and it was FREEZING cold. The kids were sleeping snuggled up like puppies in their tent, my parents were huddled under the huge camel hair bernouce my Dad had made me NUTS translating for while he bargained that afternoon. Tony read the last three chapters of Dickens aloud into the starry darkness, doing voices, as he always does, the children giggling across the frosty space between our tents. When he was done, my Dad, with tears his voice, complimented Tony on the reading. My Dad always read to us aloud… he still does, in fact.

I constructed an advent calendar of elaborate proportions, by hand, every year. One year it was 25 toilet tubes wrapped like Christmas crackers stuffed with little treasures and strung together. Another year it was a big box that I covered with paper and painted with doors to open each day. Another year it was a stack of packages that got shorter each day. This year it’s just envelopes, with a surprise written on the card inside for every day of the month. I think the kids would mutiny if I suddenly stopped doing it.


Camels for Christmas… Tunisia

Christmas isn’t “normal” for us very often.

Last year we were lucky enough to be on our island, in the snow, with all of the perfect things. The year before that we were in a stilt house in Borneo, in a tiny Muslim village with no westerners at all. Our laundry lady remembered to wish us Merry Christmas, and it made me cry. There were no Christmas decorations to be had, so we made them, and we made do with the red Chinese New Year ornaments. We’ve celebrated in Tunisia, with Christmas lights mailed from America that lasted all of three minutes because of the voltage difference, but boy were they bright! And Guatemala, with a dozen backpacker kids lined up on our living room floor like cord wood. I went behind all of their backs, contacted their mamas and made sure they had gifts under the tree from home. That was a big project! This year our tree is cut out of green craft paper and stapled on a cabinet. Ezra is getting a lot of fun out of adding cut paper decorations to it every day or so. I showed him how to make paper candles the other day and that’s now an on going project.

My favourite Christmas memories include: Riding camels, building a sand snowman on the beach with my brother when we were kids, in Mexico, breaking a pinata with a clay center with two traveling kids we’d met the winter I was 13 and Josh was 11. We’ve enjoyed adding to our traditions from our travels and the necessary minimalism that results helps us all to focus on what matters, and not the trappings.

The last Christmas in the last house we owned, in NH… 2007

The last Christmas in the last house we owned, in NH… 2007

For me, it’s about the people and creating home

Not just for the people I love most, but for the people who we know the least. Our door is always open, that’s part of our family culture, but on holidays, we pull it right off of the hinges so that we can squeeze in a few more. People need family, and community, and unconditional love. It feels, sometimes, like those things are being lost in this great big world… but really, I think they’re just standing quietly by, refusing to shout above the chaos, and if we will simply invite them, they happily become the life of the party. and about giving the gift of myself in the ways that I can to the people who need it most.

The sky is turning pink behind the volcanos.

The first cocks are crowing. I was up very early, alone with the Christmas lights and my thoughts, to gather strength for the day, organize my thoughts, and bask in the one gift Santa always tucks in my stocking, but that I have to dig around in the toe to find each year: quiet. Soon my parents will open the front door for the first time this morning. Hanna Lucia won’t be far behind them. The cinnamon rolls are waiting for the oven to be lit.

The tea kettle is standing, like the tin soldier that she is, at the ready, prepared with ammunition for my day. The children, thankfully, are still in bed. Gone are the days of toddlers waking us by snaking up underneath the covers from the bottom of our bed to lay quietly between us and stare loudly at us with big eyes until we woke up. This is simultaneously the best and worst thing about Christmas with teenagers.

Instead of boys bouncing on my toes and begging for a cookie before breakfast while I break out my lamaze breathing and consider spiking my tea to start the day, I’ll get “little mommy” hugs from my towering men and someone will bring me my cup of tea with a carefully chosen cookie that is a love offering.

It occurred to me yesterday, as I was assembling a lasagne of titanic proportions for today’s festivities, that this is the very last Christmas that we will celebrate as a family of six with everyone living under our roof. Hannah and Gabe will both be off on their own adventurous lives later this year, if all goes to plan. And, while I’m sure we’ll have them all back for holidays many years in the future, this morning marks the last Christmas morning of their collective childhoods. That alone is worth waking in the pre-dawn darkness to reflect on and celebrate in my quiet, mama sort of way.

Wherever in this world you are waking, whether with deep snow or palm trees, volcanos, or a desert outside your door know that we are wishing you the merriest of Christmases. May you be blessed with all of the things that matter most to you, and many of the extras in life too. May your hearts be filled with love, laughter, friendship and family; the kind you were born with, or the kind you choose… if you’re very lucky, both. If you wander through San Marcos this afternoon, consider this your invitation to the party. We’re the orange gate, just past Hostal Del Lago on the road out towards Tzunana. If the gate isn’t open, pull the wire to your right really hard and it will unlatch. Follow the sound of laughter until you find the house.

You are most welcome to join us.


Hannah’s Christmas packaging… Borneo


Christmas baking… Borneo

Christmas Tree, Guatemala, 2010

Christmas Tree, Guatemala, 2010

Christmas morning in the Sahara, Tunisia, 2008

Christmas morning in the Sahara, Tunisia, 2008\

A proper Christmas photo, New Hampshire, 2005

A proper Christmas photo, New Hampshire, 2005