This piece was also published in the Gray Matters section of the Houston Chronicle on 31 December 2014.
Christopher and I have been stringing out Christmas, thrilled that someone in the 16th century wrote that song about The Twelve Days of Christmas, insuring that it lasts more than just one day. We looked up the meaning of the twelve days, and I was super impressed that the gourmet gift box I got from Harry and David also had an explanation for each day. Theoretically, you would only open one treat box for each day until you got to 12 Drummers Drumming, which gives you 12 delicious candies that can also remind you of the Twelve Points of the Doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed. A friend of mine thinks this is terrible: she sees gross capitalism exploiting Christian doctrine. I see a great way to introduce the Apostle’s Creed through fabulous packaging. What can I say? We both love Christmas.
Today is the seventh day of Christmas, and I know it is superstitious, but I can’t help it, I feel super lucky anyway. It is also the day of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, or, phrased another way, the Seven Sacraments. In the song, it is “Seven Swans a-Swimming,” which is not only a beautiful image, making me think of the perfect swans and swan boats in Boston, but also proof of brilliant hyphenation. Now I want to hyphenate all verbs in that exact same way: I can tell others I have gone “a-shopping.”
It is also simultaneously New Year’s Eve, my absolute favorite day of the year because I can think about how fantastic it was that I had twelve months with Christopher going on the greatest adventures, from seeing a Caravaggio at the Kimball Museum in Fort Worth, to starting the steep ascent onto sixth grade. December 31st always gets me all excited about January 1st, the cool and smooth clean slate that always unfailingly appears each year, even if is only in my head. I love this day–I look back and see that although my child no longer believes in Santa, he has survived, and still loves Christmas for other reasons that are actually much better. I decide to give away Kipper and Thomas the Train dvds that he has not watched in years. Part of me wants to cry about this, but really, I don’t have that kind of time. I am busy thinking about what we will wear this summer when we are traveling, riding real trains, seeing real monuments. This is the great part about Christopher getting older: we can stop talking about things in this world, and actually do them.
On Saturday (or “Five Golden Rings” Day, reminding us of the first five books of the Old Testament), Christopher and I went to Moody Gardens in Galveston. You might ask yourself, why would anyone go to Galveston, Texas, on the coldest night of the year? To freeze on the beach? No, not at all. It is the particular brilliance of Texas that no problem cannot be solved. When some people (people like me) yearned for the sugar sand of Florida and the Carolinas, the smart people at Moody Gardens shipped some in and created the best fake beach for the summer that I have ever seen. They call it “Palm Beach,” and unlike the real beach, you are right near a shower and snacks and the water is chlorinated. I think this is sheer genius.
But what to do in the winter? No problem. These very same people fill up the whole park with thousands of lights that go on for over a mile, and they replace that beach with an ice skating rink. No need to travel up north: they bring the north to you. The “Festival of Lights” was a wonder of artifice–they had the story of Jesus’s birth, of course, and then a light representation of every Christmas association you might have ever had in your entire life. Pure kitsch, with gingerbread men and pink flamingos and Santas and leaping dolphins, punctuated by hot chocolate and Kettle Corn brought in from Spring, Texas, which, if you have not had it, is highly addictive, as it is popcorn that tastes like funnel cake. In other words, it is funnel cake transformed into popcorn so you can walk around and eat it while looking at a mile of lights. It was cold, it was bright, and I felt so lucky to be alive.
Part of our ticket included entrance into the Moody Gardens Aquarium, and I thought it was something that since it was too cold to see the sea, we could see its treasures inside. We were cold and flushed from our walk outside. I had forgotten how fantastic this aquarium really is: we saw the proud fur seal preening, the only fur thicker is worn by otters, and I thought of the seal coats worn in the nineteenth century, visions of Dickens dancing in my head. That seal was so adorable, PETA may have a point. The harbor seals slithered through the water as they propelled themselves into their pirouettes, and the penguins slept upright, like totem poles, or people on trains. We saw purple sea anemones, dwarfed seahorses, lionfish, shark teeth. We saw turtles with the smoothest underbellies, tiger sharks, kelp. Nothing outside, no matter how intricate the configuration, could compete with this. We touched starfish, left the building, saw the moon, saw the stars. It was clear and cold.
Lots of people write about the meaning of Christmas, and you know the Christmas story: Jesus was given birth, and something new changed everything forever. I am no theologian: theologians were created to help people like me. But this Christmas, I was reminded that something new is born before our eyes every single day. Sometimes it is something that someone just introduces you to–so it is new for you, and brings you the kind of happiness that you would have never known except for that moment of generosity.
Sometimes it is huge, and creates a baseline of happiness that will save you from the worst days for the rest of your life.
Listen to this: a friend of mine showed me a Christmas movie that I had never seen before. He was tired, he had hurt his ankle, he had had a long day. He showed it to me anyway. Apparently, I was the only living American never to have seen “A Christmas Story.” This film is so well-known they even have a production of it on Broadway. I know: Where have I been? Well, I am blonde–I miss things. Anyway, he showed me this movie, and it was absolutely excruciatingly hilarious, at least for me, in that the child who plays the lead looks exactly like my child, glasses and all. He asks for ridiculous things for Christmas like a BB-gun, and the mother, who makes perfect sense to me the entire movie, tells him, “No, you will shoot your eye out!” Statistically, that may not be very likely, but she is right. Your whole job as a mother is to figure out what might be lethal, and then forbid it. This kid gets the gun from his Dad, but I am okay with that since any injuries will Never Be Her Fault. I also learned about the significance of leg lamps and the dangers of putting your tongue on a frozen pole, but my point is that Christmas always offers surprises, even if no one else is surprised, and then you can be all excited again, no matter what. This is the thrill of Christmas.
And listen to this: no matter how many mistakes you have made, Christmas comes every year, and you can start over, have your own re-birthday, string out the season, look at seahorses, look at lights, hear songs sung. You may not have been born to save the world, but you can make it better. You can figure out what things didn’t go so well, and put that all away. You can get out your brand new calendar: tomorrow is the first of many great days to come. Tomorrow is the first day of the first month: the perennial perfection of January 1.
Christopher and I walked in the cold, and saw heaven and nature at the Festival of Lights. I hugged him, didn’t want to let him go. He is as tall as I am, even when I am in heels. It is the seventh day of Christmas. I am an American, living in Texas, where we can transform sugar sand into ice skating rinks, and bring the creatures of the sea so close you could almost touch them. I have an adorable child who could star in “A Christmas Story” if they got in a pinch. It is cool outside, and sometimes, I can remember everything when I really put my mind to it. I get five more days of Christmas, another year of many with Christopher, and somewhere, seven swans are a-swimming. I am sure of it.