Many moments bring on sadness at Christmas time, but carolers on horseback should not be one of them. Saturday morning twelve or more horses decorated in their Christmas finery—Christmas hats over their ears, garlands wrapped around their reins, ribbons braided into their tails—lined up in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows at the nursing home. Behind the windows twenty or more of the residents sat in their wheelchairs to watch and listen. Some wore Santa hats, some held on to rings of jingle bells, and some just held in their hands songbooks they couldn’t read or understand. My mother was one of them. She sat locked into her angry delusions, quiet and unmoving. One resident cried softly. Another slept in her chair the entire time. Others stared out at the horses. A few sang along with the singer outside the windows who was accompanied by the pianist inside.
The event was the same as the previous year except for more horses participating and the freezing eight degree weather. But it was not the same for my mother or for me. The carols made me cry. The array of wheelchairs made me sad as I imagined the kinds of lives once lived by their occupants. My loving, generous mother who baked cookies and breads for Christmas, who knitted and crocheted blankets for the needy, who laughed and played the organ, and shopped with me for gifts, was gone, replaced by someone I don’t really know any more, someone capable of unspeakably hurtful accusations that cut to the center of my heart and remain there for days.
As I get older, I find myself reminiscing often about the Christmases of my past—both my childhood and young adulthood when my daughters were small and magic existed. Gifts were simple, often handmade. There was cocoa and cookies and carols. The family gathered at my grandparents’ house where we sat in the living room in a circle and laughed at our crazy gifts. One year my sister crocheted Rudolph noses for all of us. We put them on and wore them through gift giving and the light supper of sandwiches and salads my grandmother made. Another year my sister crocheted Santa hats and wrote funny nicknames on them with glitter glue. We all wore them, my grandfather dancing around the room while we all laughed. My grandparents are gone. My father is gone. My sister is gone. The noses and hats are tucked in between tissue paper in a box of ornaments I can’t bear to look at.
This Christmas for the first time in over forty years, my husband and I will be alone on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. We will go to church Christmas Eve and visit my mother. On Christmas Day we will take her some gifts and then go out to dinner without her. I’m not feeling sorry for myself because I know how lucky I really am to have her and my daughters and granddaughters. So many people have lost loved ones this past year. There has been so much tragedy and violence that it is more essential than ever to find joy in some way during the holidays. Otherwise, grief would win out over happiness.
My youngest daughter was sad recently, remembering those Christmases when we were all together doing crazy things. Her task now is to create her own joyous times with her children so they have those same happy memories. I was lucky to have her, her husband, and my granddaughters with me on Thanksgiving. My oldest daughter, now living in Arizona, will visit this coming weekend, but she too will be spending Christmas Eve and Christmas Day alone. Still, I put up the tree and decorated it. I am baking cookies and Christmas breads using my mother’s recipes. And I will find a way to feel some sense of peace this year.
During those quiet, dark moments in the night when sleep refuses to come, I try to replace that image of the carolers on horseback singing to nursing home residents with dementia, my mother among them, with those Christmas Eves in my grandparents’ living room when my sister handed out the Rudolph noses or the Santa hats and we laughed together, and Christmas was still magical for both the young and the old.