The first time it was up to me to play carols on the piano for the family singing on Christmas Eve, I couldn't do it. I sat there with my hands on the keys, tears streaming down my face, fingers slipping off the black keys by mistake, missing easy chords, losing the tune to "Silent Night."
My father was the piano player in our family and he had died the previous year. I could read music but didn't have the ear. Everybody gathered around the piano. Loud merry voices: "Hark the herald . . ." But I was in the wrong key. For a moment I thought: This is where it all stops. No piano, no singing. No singing, no Christmas. No Christmas, Bah, Humbug!
Of course, it didn't stop. We muddled through the carols that year even with me slobbering over B flat. The next year, we invited someone who could play the piano.
That's the point -- the rituals of the season endure, and they help us cope with the myriad of emotions triggered by the holidays. It's not just the obvious stresses that burden one and all: shopping without enough money, wrapping and decorating without enough time, lavishing love on kith and kin, eating fruitcake -- or worse, making fruitcake -- going out and wassailing.
No, the real stress comes because Christmas forces us to look inward and take stock. We have to deal with ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come. The rhetoric is about family happiness, global peace and love everlasting. Yet the reality falls short. Just the sound of jingle bells can trigger intense pain and loneliness as the regrets of the past combine with fears for the future.
Long ago, I decided that instead of repressing my Yuletide ghosts, I would make friends with them and welcome them into my house. I surround these ghosts with familiar tokens and include them in our ritual of singing carols on Christmas Eve.
First the snow village from my childhood is placed on the mantel -- carefully situated on top of stacks of books covered with a pillow case to simulate the Alps. The houses are smudged cardboard; the windows of torn tissue paper. The church has no steeple and looks like an abandoned bowling alley. At one time, my children were so embarrassed by this crumbling tableau that they wanted to throw the mess out.
But when I look at the village, I am 8 years old. My job is putting the village on the mantel. In a few minutes, everyone will come for the carol sing. There are two pianos in the living room -- one for my mother, the other for my father -- but my mother doesn't play this year. My cousins, all a little older than I, can sing parts. My Aunt Ruth in black velvet is teaching me alto. Next year, I will be the page in Good King Wensceslas: "Sire he lives a good league hense."
Some years, we go from "The First Noel" to "Someone's in the Kitchen With Dinah" to "That's Why the Lady is a Tramp." My grandmother -- a huge woman in navy blue -- waves a cane, and for the next 20 years she will insist I give her a New England Calendar every Christmas.
All of which is why I insist we keep the village. It's a talisman for my old ghosts. My husband smiles. My grown daughters sigh. We patch up the windows with new tissue paper, replace a few roofs with Kleenex boxes, repaint the church with a felt-tip pen. We populate the village with knights and bishops and kings and queens from an old Chinese chess set. We even find some new cardboard houses to upgrade the neighborhood.
There are other old tokens -- squashed baubles for the tree, a star made by one of the girls in kindergarten in 1973, a papier-ma~che' angel with giant wings that looks like an osprey about to pounce on a fish. And new tokens: a string of bells from Jerusalem that chime in the drafty hallway, a sandalwood cre`che -- the tourist special -- from Bethlehem.
On Christmas Eve, the singing starts at 6. In come the ghosts of Christmases past: grandmothers, godmothers, playmates, cousins, uncles and aunts. Cousin Ann, a radical graduate of Bryn Mawr, Class of 1918, who never married, started to howl one year during "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." "I have cancer," she cried. "This is my favorite carol, and I'll not hear it again." Uncle Peter took her hand. My stepmother brought her some cheese and crackers. My younger daughter, then 7, dressed in white tights and a blue velvet dress, buried her face in my thigh.
"Let's sing it again," my father said.
In, too, come the ghosts of Christmas Present. First, the babies who are now old enough to vote: Max, who has dreadlocks and plays African drums; Nat and Edward, the rock climbers, Toria who rows crew, Abbie about to work in a drug clinic, Avery in television, Virginia in public relations -- all the children of the middle generation of husbands and wives, some married, some uncoupled. We come together and reconnect our divergent lives in "Angels we have heard on high."
Next the ghosts of Christmas Yet to Come. I've learned to keep my dreams for others in check. But I like to think someday, somewhere, in some family, an 8-year-old will place a snow village on the mantel, and then everyone will gather to go through the book of carols.
This year, I'm supposed to play the piano again, and I don't worry anymore about hitting the wrong notes.