When we brought last year’s fir tree into the house the kids leapt into a spontaneous heathenish dance around it, stomping, clapping and hooting with abandon. Watching them, though it doesn’t snow here, I smelt snow; and though we have no fireplace, I smelt fire. All at once I was very old and very young and I could have sworn the living room was lit only by moon and stars. It was a significant moment – but whether honoring of pagan survivals or the Incarnation, I wasn’t sure.
This year the children found their moment at the St Lucy’s tree lot. It was dark and raining but the fenced off square was strung with lights. Their mother picked out a tree while I kept them from trouble. My son marched stiffly for the taller stands deep in the makeshift woods. My daughter in her red lumberjack’s hat fled giggling through spruces and pines. I walked between the trees calling out for them, thrilled at the scratching needles on the backs of my hands and the sharp smell of sap and the rain running down my neck.
Certain years, when I was a boy, we would drive on Christmas Eve to Yosemite Valley, which is nearly deserted in winter. We would crunch through snow up a trail to stare at waterfalls frozen to thousand-foot cliffs like the long hoary beard of Father Christmas.
Other years, we would drive to my maternal grandparents’ home near San Luis Obispo. My tall jovial grandfather would play Johnny Cash records and burn sanded bowling pins in the fireplace. Christmas dinner stretched on forever. Seated at the table with the adults, a surplus of holiday delicacies at hand, I could only think impatiently of the enjoyment of new toys. The moment of the feast would spread out to fill the whole night, the whole house, and all the hills and shores and days and weeks in every direction. What was I now? I wondered. Was I an old man yet, like grandpa? Or was I still a boy?