Merry Christmas all! Today it’s time for my own little Christmas story:
I suspect that everyone who celebrates Christmas has one Christmas hallowed as perfect–either one they actually lived through or one just imagined. These are the Christmases that make you cry when you see the Whos singing together in The Grinch, or at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life (which I have never seen but which seems to be that kind of movie).
For me this Christmas was 1970, when I was five. Of course five is a prime Christmas age, when Santa Claus flies around the world distributing toys to good children, and there is just the tiniest chance that you might get a lump of coal in your stocking but you are pretty sure that he will have forgotten that little incident with your sister over the summer (especially since you were very sorry and apologized), and when you do not have to worry about year-end spreadsheets, or exams, or gifts for picky relatives, or spiraling credit card debt to pay for the gifts for your picky relatives.
Instead, if you are lucky, you are living in a state of happy anticipation that a benevolent fat man is going to deposit a bounty of toys in your living room, and everyone you love will be with you and share a glorious meal, and all of you will be happy together and laugh a lot.
All that happened the morning of December 25, 1970. That morning it was a splendid sight that met my five-year-old eyes as my sister and I sped into the living room, long before anyone else was awake. The room sparkled–maybe because of the overabundance of tinsel my sister and I had used in our childish but exuberant efforts to decorate the tree, or maybe just from my own joy.
The room was bursting with toys, but the one that stood out was Snorky. Snorky was a very large stuffed elephant, roughly the same size as my five-year-old self. He’d clearly been designed by someone whose taste in clothes ran along the same lines as my early taste in tree decorating. His body was yellow; he wore a fuchsia vest underneath a lime-green jacket; he had a gold band around his neck with a bow-tie which was at some point ripped off and disappeared forever.
My grandparents and great-grandmother dragged themselves into the living room shortly thereafter and set about opening the dull gifts that caused such strange delight in adults–clothes, power tools, fishing equipment, cookware, and so on. Our 16 mm film of the occasion shows everything a child imagines as the perfect Christmas–smiling grown-ups sitting together at the table, my sister and I running about with our toys, a plump turkey, a perhaps-a-bit-shiny but still beautiful tree.
Eventually, of course, the turkey was eaten and the football games played and the grandparents dispersed. I carried Snorky to bed and from that moment developed a pattern that persisted throughout my childhood. I would hunker down with Snorky underneath the covers. At some point he would fall off and I would drag him back into bed by his trunk. This naturally deteriorated and soon began to emit little white Styrofoam peas that were, I assumed, vacuumed up by my mother or eaten by the thing that lived underneath the bed, which was never there when I actually looked but was waiting for just the right moment to grab my dangling foot.
Snorky stayed in my room throughout high school and college, his trunk repaired with masking tape, a hole that emerged in his back ineffectively patched with more tape but still spewing white Styrofoam peas on occasion. Eventually, as I moved all over the country pursuing jobs and degrees, he was relegated to a black plastic garbage bag in a storage room in my mother’s office, where he snoozed peacefully, probably grateful that no one was picking him up by his trunk every night.
When I got married at 41, my mother seemed to feel it might be time for me to move those items out of storage and into my own house. So my husband and I were forced into action, dragging ourselves up to Tennessee from Atlanta to haul away my stuff. Amidst the college essays and prom dresses and 4-H project books, Snorky was still there in his black plastic bag littered with Styrofoam peas. Not having time to sift through the geological layers of my life, we threw everything into my dad’s 1979 Chevy Big 10 Bonanza and hauled it back to Atlanta.
Soon afterwards, I got the job in Durham that currently keeps me far away from Fred, and we began the ongoing process of moving our things from our little house in Atlanta. This effort led to some ruthless purging. I tossed out my public speaking trophies. I got rid of the prom dresses. I threw out elementary school report cards, literature notes from college, battered and beloved dolls. But even though he occupied approximately one-sixteenth of a room in our tiny house, I could not bear to throw away Snorky. He stared up at me with his weirdly iridescent blue eyes and silently begged me not to let him go.
He was one of the last tattered remnants of that perfect Christmas, when our whole family was together and Santa Claus was sure to show up every year. At one time I was always trying to get back to that Christmas. And I would sometimes find the holidays depressing because I couldn’t get there.
Thank goodness that today I realize that we don’t have to look for the past, or wait for, or long for the perfect Christmas. We just have to find joy when we can get it. The Whos tell us that Christmas day is in our grasp as long as we have hands to clasp, as long as “we” have “we.” What sometimes makes Christmas sad is that the “we” will change and some hands just aren’t there anymore. But we will always have the memory of those hands, and find new hands, and new love, even as we don’t lose the memory of the old love, wherever the holidays may find us.
This is why I hang on to Snorky. He’s just a big yellow elephant filled with Styrofoam peas, but he reminds me that there’s always a tiny bit of magic to be found in the world, if you’ll only look.