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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Meaning of Christmas

I wrote this for a local paper about six years ago (back in my editorial writing days). I hope you enjoy it, and wish all of you a Merry Christmas and a safe holiday season.

How can Christmas be here again?

Feels like only a year ago we spent a small fortune on a dead tree, hauled it home, stuck a branch in my son’s eye trying to get the thing into the house, and then waged a mini-world war with my wife over the all-important issue of whether the tree was straight. It was, of course, but dutiful husband that I am, I grabbed the sappy trunk with my freshly washed hands and pretended to adjust it until my wife victoriously announced “perfect!” (I take my little victories wherever I can find them.)

I have always loved Christmas and all its trappings. But as I grew older and left behind my youthful lust for gifts, I discovered something strangely schizophrenic about this ostensibly happy time. My grandfather Ted (or Papou in Greek) once hinted as much to me when I was about ten. My sister and I were decorating our tree while Papou sat nearby watching the tradition with his usual skeptical interest. An Andy Williams Christmas record accompanied the moment. Papou reached out and held my arm.

“What does all this mean to you?” His usually cheerful smile had been replaced by a sad demeanor.

“Toys and no school for three weeks!” shouted back the happy boy who no longer exists.

He smiled when I leaned over to kiss his shiny bald head. “When you get older and have a family of your own,” he sagely advised, “Christmas will be different for you.” After seeing my puzzled look, he added, “Older eyes do not always see just the happiness.” He nodded knowingly, but I had no idea what he meant.

I think I do now.

At this time every year for the past decade I have had exactly the same dream. Exactly. I am about fourteen. It is a cold and snowy Midwest Christmas day, and my extended family is squeezed into the old house—chatting, yelling, arguing, laughing, kissing, and hugging. (If you have seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you have met my entire family and know how I grew up.)

The dream never changes. I drop a load of freshly cut firewood in front of a hot roaring hearth, walk into the dining room, push open the heavy swinging oak door, and peak around the corner into the kitchen. My maternal grandma (Yia Yia) locks her bright hazel eyes on mine and flashes her brilliant white teeth as she pulls a fragrant Christmas lamb from the oven. My Papou is standing nearby at the cutting board, gripping his white bone-handled knife while waiting to carve the meat. He smiles and says something to me, but I can’t make out his words. Holly, our wonderful and long-gone German Shepherd, is waiting impatiently beneath the cutting board, ready to lap up the occasional drip of juice or misplaced scrap of lamb.

Great Uncle Bill, the one with a bum leg (suffered during a championship soccer match or World War I, take your pick), is sitting on the living room sofa next to my equally old Great Uncle Louie, who is dressed, as he always was, in the only suit he owned.

Fussing over the table behind me is my mom, four decades younger than she is now, while my Dad, always busy but rarely helpful at such times, walks from one room to the next as if unsure what to do or how to do it.

And then it happens. Each of them fades away, one by one, in the order of their passing. Only my mother remains when the dream ends. And she is old again.

“Older eyes do not always see happiness.”

Now I realize now what Papou was trying to tell me: Gather your family around you and cherish your time together, for everything is fleeting and nothing stays the same. Those you love and have near you today will one day leave you. And that day is always sooner than you think. Those who are young will grow old, and those who are old will pass on.

Now, when I watch my two wonderful kids laugh and cavort around the tree, hanging the special ornaments and mementos that mark the milestones of our lives together, I make an extra effort to soak in the moment, to absorb the significance of the experience, to appreciate my wife and family and my good fortune like never before. To give thanks.

Thank you, God, for everything that I have. I am a very blessed man.



Steve Basic said...


Very well written and something I can relate to. Croatian family here, and remember the kitchen always being full of folks. As the years have gone by, those who were there are no longer with us. Christmas here has not been the same since the passing of my younger sister in 2006. My Mom was not ready to decorate the house as has been common since then, but can happily report that last weekend she and I did do so as we normally did before we all lost Mary K. Mom and I had a fine afternoon. :)

Merry Christmas to you and your family and all the best in 2009.

Regards from the Garden State,

Steve Basic

Anonymous said...

This is really a moving piece. Brings back memories for me of cold Minnesota winters and family too long gone, sadly. Thanks for sharing, Mr. Savas. I really enjoy your postings. I hoope you have a good Christmas this year.


J David Petruzzi said...

Wonderful recollections, Ted. At this time of year I always think of Christmas 30 years ago surrounded by my very Italian family. Christmas Eve - full of the anticipation in a young boy's heart. Snow. Cold. Loving it. Waiting for Santa Claus, and hoping that last doozie of a bad thing I did didn't make his list.

My grandfather passed when I was 8, so my memories of him are limited. But there's Gramma at the old stove and oven - our traditional Christmas day dinner being prepared... ham, turkey, pasta with squid in the sauce (Oh my God is that good), eel, fried and baked fish, homemade bread... and more.

We haven't had that meal since she died nearly 15 years ago, but you know I can still smell and taste it. Just like it was in front of me. That never leaves you - smells are some of the most powerful memories. I'll be able to taste it 20, 30, 40 years from now, until the day I'm gone.

Always a real tree in Gramma's living room, and after dinner we kids would tear into the presents. Then the cousins would come over, we'd exchange gifts, and we kids would show off our new toys, and go out in the big backyard for a snowball fight.

Sometimes I think I'd give 5 years of my life to go back for just one day. But then I think of my wife and our daughter, and our own memories. One day she'll remember too. And maybe she'll remember how our dinners tasted, and opening presents in front of our big tree, Christmas music playing in the background.

We're all very blessed. I'm blessed to have you as my publisher, my editor, my friend. Thanks for all you do. The experience of writing about what I love and having some people think it's half decent has made a whole new set of memories I'll treasure just as long as the taste of Christmas dinner at Gramma's.


Mike Nugent said...

Excellent piece Ted. It brings back a lot of bitter-sweet memories for a lot of folks I'm sure.

Best to you and yours for the holidays.