My favorite Christmas song is “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” I remember mentioning it to my mother once and she was genuinely surprised that I would pick such a secular song as my favorite, but it has been my favorite for the whole of my adult life and speaks to me at every spot along the way.
“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, Let your Hearts Be Light, From Now On, Our Troubles Will be Out of Sight”
Growing up, we had wonderful Christmas traditions, born out of the common, yet uncommon nexus of Italian and Irish traditions. My Irish mother was a great cook, primarily as she would easily admit, due to the vigilant, yet loving tutelage of her Italian mother-in-law. As a result, our holidays were a crazy mix of two cultures, with all the love of each one woven in. It meant fish on Christmas Eve, with strouffle (little hand-rolled dough balls rolled in honey and nonpareils) and Irish Soda bread and full Irish breakfast on Christmas morning. The dinner consisted of a turkey, and all the trimmings, but only after antipasti and salami bread.
For Christmas, when I was eleven, I bought my father a small book which had a paper cover with green holly leaves and red berries. It was “ A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. From that year on, my father read to us the entire story every Christmas Eve. All six of us would be in the living room, dishes done, pajamas on, tree lit, fire on, with my father in the chair reading from start to finish. Every now and again, he would pause for dramatic effect, take a small sip of scotch and forge on. I was always rapt. I don’t believe I ever fell asleep, but for the younger kids that did, they would always wake to my father’s enthusiastic, faux British-accented “God Bless Us Everyone,” spoken by Tiny Tim.
We would then rouse and head up to bed. When we were young we would want to wait for Santa. As we got older, we knew the earlier we headed up, the quicker my parents would be able to lay out the goods.
Here’s to the Happy Olden Days, Happy Golden Days of Yore. Faithful friends that are dear to us, travel near to us once more.
As we got older, the insular Christmas Eve was opened up to provide shelter for those of my parent’s friends that did not have the large families that tended to swallow you up with their numbers. And so, following our traditional dinner, the door would open to a small influx of friends, who would come for a drink, coffee, and dessert.
This provided a brief interlude where everyone who wanted, could come and enjoy a bit of the zaniness that was our immediate family. And those people, in turn, would bring us some laughs and Christmas cheer.
When they left, “A Christmas Carol” was brought forth again. As we got older, my father passed the reading off. I took some turns, just when his voice had gotten a little strained or when he was tired, or when he just thought it was fun to pass it off.
We’d all go to bed at the end. As young adults, set on the road to thinking a bit more about the meaning of the story–the freedom of redemption, the lightness that comes with grace and acceptance of community, and the love of friends and family.
For us, this was just the calm before the storm, for Christmas Day was just Part II of the festivities. But Christmas Eve, held all the magic-the quiet, the lights, the promise, the expectation.
It was special. I knew it then and I know it even more concretely now. Years later, my father would lose his way, the joy that he had always felt for the little things, the homey things were stifled by an unceasing quest for a missing life, a life of adventure, and excitement that seemed to us to be a rootless and hollow existence. He would find himself again, a few years later, and he would share some of the early magic with his grandchildren, but for us, it was never really quite the same. But for the first 21 years of my life, this was what we shared.
“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, make the yuletide gay, from now on our troubles will be miles away”
December 23, 1988 – I had just gotten to my mother’s house for the weekend of Christmas. Although my mother and father were no longer together, my father, like metal filament to a magnet, would come home to share in all the homey preparations–my mother’s decorating, her baking, all the kids coming home from college, even sometimes, putting up the tree. He would leave to pursue his own patched together plans that he had made with the abandon of someone who had only himself to consider.
My boyfriend at the time had met me at my mother’s house. To be honest, I wondered at the time why he was coming so early when we would be spending Christmas Day together, but I didn’t question.
I was having a drink with my mother and my Aunt Cathy (not a blood aunt, but another one of the strong women in my childhood who I was happy to call Aunt), and I had just settled in to hear the latest gossip when Michael called from the door and asked if I could come into the living room. The tree, which we had set up the week before looked large and gorgeous and he called me to stand near it. I was a little put-out, wondering what he needed at the tree.
“Look there, do you see it? One of the lights is shining brighter.”
In all my romanticism, I asked, “What are you talking about? The lights are the same.”
“No look closer,” he said.
I looked at him, for the first time and saw that he was excited about something. I started to realize that it wasn’t the lights.
Well in fact, I’m kind of blind without my glasses, so this very romantic moment he had planned like a scene in a diamond advertisement went straight to hell when I said, “What is it? I don’t see anything!”
At this point, he practically pushed my head between the branches to show me a beautiful diamond ring that was hanging on the tree branch.
“Will you marry me?” he asked, while kneeling on one knee.
At this point, my Aunt Cathy walked in.
“Oh my God! Is he proposing?”
I didn’t know who to answer, and went with age thing first, and said: “Yes, Aunt Cat.”
Michael, still on one knee asked: “Can you answer me first?”
“Yes! Didn’t I say that already?”
“No! but I had an idea.”
My Aunt Cat regally ushered the two of us into the kitchen where my parents had been waiting for the news. Michael had asked permission of both of them prior to that night. And so, that is the Alpha to our marriage.
Our first child was due on December 22, but was born on December 28th. In deference to my advanced pregnancy, my mother, at great sacrifice to her idea of a proper holiday, gathered the entire family to my apartment for Christmas day, bringing all the food, drinks and guests. I had a wonderful pregnancy and remember dancing around my Jr-4 apartment to “Last Christmas”, in a red and green-plaid jumper. It was a happy day.
The next Christmas, and many more beyond, Toy’s R Us became part of the tradition. When we had only one child and had to shop after work, we took the cherub with us and devised “blinders” by keeping the hood of her little snowsuit up so she couldn’t see what we were putting in the cart. When it was time to pay up, I grabbed her out of the cart and brought her to the car while Michael stayed behind, a foot-long receipt hastily shoved in his pocket.
When we had more children it became clear that we needed at least one dedicated night of TRU. It involved more than one cart and either a babysitter, or my sister, watching the kids.
We established early that Santa gifts would be piled on the couch, since there really wasn’t enough room under the tree for four large stacks. Michael and I would take multiple trips down from whatever hiding spot of whatever house it was, silently as possible trying to carry bags down the stairs without waking. As they got older and some wise guy at school would say that Santa didn’t exist and that their parents bought gifts, I was light on my feet with the answer that “Of course, so and so’s parents have to buy the gifts! Santa stops bringing gifts the minute you stop believing in him.”
And then there was the tree. The rules to the tree selection were simple, but not easy. We had to get the tree when everyone could be there and once there, everyone had to agree on the tree. When they were small, getting all four of them was easy, getting them to agree, was never.
As they got older, sports and social schedules made getting them together much harder, and conversely, the tree selection was easier because they were usually bored, and wanting to get it over with so they could get on with whatever they had planned for the day.
Michael and I initially would bring the tree in and put it in the stand. Then we would leave it and let the branches fall a bit. There was no scientific theory here, but rather probably had more to do with what football game was in progress and what the next possible break could be.
If it was our turn to do Christmas, I handled the decor, both house and table, but Michael had a decent hand in the menu, especially the meat. We replicated all of my mother’s standards, but If it were up to me, everyone would have about two pieces of meat. Michael had a professional eye as to how much, and how it should be cooked. He would plate food professionally and it wasn’t until he died that I realized just how much that meant to the day. One of the last conversations that we were able to have while he was conscious was what kind of meat I should get for Christmas Day and how I should cook it. I found that note in a notebook recently, it brought me to my knees.
“Through the years, we all will be together, if the fates allow. Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”
It was three straight weeks. Three weeks where the routine was in and out of the hospital for three or four days, released and back again a few weeks later, ended for good with a case of pneumonia in an already weakened immune system. Every one of my children was there, including my daughter’s boyfriend, my sister, brother-in-law, their three children, his mother, sister, aunt, uncle – all there, every day.
The hospital gave us extra chairs so that we could sit the requisite 12 people around the perimeter of the room, with two chairs always at the bedside. Those chairs would be occupied on a rotational basis. When someone new came, the bedside seat would be vacated for that person.
My sister brought some decorations for the room. A fuzzy felt stocking and a ”Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Sleigh”, complete with Santa. We tried to be festive. We talked to the young Italian doctor who was going to be on duty on Christmas and promised him a good Italian meal if Michael were still in the hospital. There was talk of his release.
But, we seamlessly planned our traditional Christmas in the hospital, commandeering the lounge which was next to his room. Inviting others on the floor to partake on the day. Prior to that, there was a lot of talk with the doctors about Christmas.
“I just want to get him through Christmas!”, I said to one of the attending oncologists. He was the one in the practice who we knew was the least emotional. Great diagnostician, just not warm and fuzzy.
“Mrs. Lucey, why do you want to get him through Christmas?” he asked without emotion.
“Because, I just want him to have one more Christmas with his children,” I said, emboldened with the task of dragging him, if necessary, across the finish line that I had created in my imagination.
“Ok, let’s just go here for a minute, and what happens if he dies on Christmas? What does that do for your children going forward? Is that really what you want?”
First of all, let me point out the absolute hubris of my believing that I had anything to do with when or how he would die. But, I was going on regardless.
I had been his custodian, with his consent, from day one of his diagnosis, and I knew in my heart he wanted one more day. But to the doctor’s point, would that day be a great thing to do for the kids? What happened if he survived Christmas and died two days later on his oldest child’s birthday?
So, I gave up the idea of trying to use herculean methods to have him stretch his lifespan to include Christmas. I left it in God’s hands and in His infinite wisdom and infinite grace, the decision was taken out of my hands.
On the night of December 22, as everyone filed out of the room at 11:30 pm, I closed the door behind the last of the children, both our own and my sisters and leaned down and told him, “It’s ok, I’ve got this now. Go rest”
I pulled out my cot, crawled into it, and watched one of our favorite movies, “While You Were Sleeping” on my phone. I didn’t use headphones because he was unconscious and I thought if he heard it, he would be okay with it. When the movie was over, I put down my phone, took a sip of water and turned to him, my hand reaching up to the bed to rest on his arm.
At 6:15 I woke up and knew with a certainty I have rarely felt before, that he was gone. “He was just gone”, the nurse said. She said it was what probably woke me up. December 23, 2016, the Omega to the Alpha of engagement day.
And so, just like that, we galvanized from a waiting group to an acting group. Due to the Church and Christmas, we had to make all of our arrangements, buy clothes for those whose suits were ill-fitting, or who didn’t have appropriate colors, panty hose, etc., in one day. And then there was Christmas Eve. We were giddy with lack of sleep and half-stunned with the rapidity of the transition from dying to death.
And so the rest of us were together. It was hard not to believe he wasn’t upstairs in our room, where he had languished for the last half of a year. But it was Christmas Eve, and the traditions that we had celebrated over the years became the tethers that held us to a place of light.
Returning home from my sister’s that night, I watched “It’s a Wonderful Life”, like Michael, the kids and I had watched for as long as we were all together. It was the movie to fill the time between when the kids went to bed, to when we were sure they were asleep enough to put out the gifts.
On this night, all my children started on the couch to watch. One by one, they peeled off and quietly sought their own beds and their own memories. My second child, my oldest son, remained and we completed the movie. He asked me if I needed help laying out the gifts for the other kids, but I assured him it was a job I wanted to, and could, complete on my own. As I set each stack in the appropriate position on the couch, I felt the extent of the loss in real-time, but there was a job to do. The next day was Christmas–the last day of semi-normalcy in this whole crazy chunk of days. The day after would be the wake, the next day the funeral and then the next day, my oldest daughter’s birthday.
“Are you sure you are up to having everyone for Christmas?”, my sister-in-law inquired, concerned about overwhelming me.
“There are very few things I know for sure right now, but this is one of them. Michael would want everyone at his house for Christmas as planned, he would not have changed this and neither will I.”
And so, we dressed for Christmas. I had a tree that my friend Allison had provided, decorated and installed in my family room a few days before. I had food that everyone brought, with the nieces and nephews, and my brothers and sisters-in-laws, of course my sister, we celebrated Christmas with energy and hope, knowing the next day would be a different story entirely.
My youngest nephew, a very special child, donned his Santa suit and although he was just six at the time, seemed to understand the need to provide light and hope to the day. As I sat watching him “Ho Ho Ho” and present gifts to the adults, I thought this is what Christmas is about. This grace, this moment of utter peace in a superstorm of agony.
“So Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas Day”
Christmas, and the days leading up to it, will always bear the brands of those who made us a family. My father, my mother, my husband, my father-in-law, my sisters-in-law’s fathers, these people who helped shape not just Christmas, but in their love, their families.
I have my own tradition–it is rather a secret, but I will share it here now. As I take down the Christmas tree, and wrap each ornament in tissue, I write on a post-it what my wish for my family is for the next Christmas. I date it and put it inside the lid of the box, on top of the past year’s note. I read it when I open the box for the first time.
Although each year has a specific wish, it always ends with the same. “Please let us all be together, healthy and loved.”
Claudia Lucey is a widowed mother of four, mostly adult children. Her “happy place” is the beach, where she spends every waking moment in the Summer. But spending time with her children is her greatest joy. Her philosophy is that laughter, even through tears, is the greatest emotional outlet. Nothing makes her happier than a good laugh, even at her own expense. She is a Director of Marketing for a construction company, yet she is a trained journalist who loves to write and photograph buildings of any size or shape.